The Legendary Apple: The Most Popular Fruit in America

September is a bittersweet time for gardeners. We like to grow things, see them flourish, and that is certainly what they are doing now, as the dwindling daylight reminds us of autumn’s approach. The sweet corn is gone. Berries are a distant memory. The tomatoes and basil are at their height, but will be finished before the month is. Soon enough it will be time for tucking our gardens under a blanket of mulch to take their long winter’s rest while we cuddle by the fire after a good, long meal.
Summer yields a couple favorites for the grill—corn and zucchini. Their cooking methods are pretty different from each other, but they are both simple, and yield delicious results, especially if they come from your garden. There is still at least one great harvest left to us, and it is one of the most popular fruits in legend and verse, history and lore. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. The apple of my eye. Comparing apples to oranges. Don’t upset the apple cart. The best thing since sliced apples. How do you like them apples? All this doesn’t even mention the apple shared by Adam, Eve, and a snake, though that would more likely have been a quince, since apples didn’t grow there then.

Here in the U.S. apples deserve an almost legendary status. Colonists drank far more hard cider than water, since water would often make them sick, and the participants in the Boston Tea Party were most likely quite drunk on the stuff. Of course there is also the story of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, who unlike the cartoonish fellow with the bare feet and the pot on his head we were taught about in grade school, was actually a brewer and land speculator. He did indeed spread apple trees from Massachusetts to Indiana, but his purpose was to take advantage of a law at the time that allowed him to lay claim to land where he had planted a crop.

Apples today are one of the most popular fruits in America. Commercial production climbed steadily throughout our history until about 1998, and it has since been in decline mainly due to the rise of China. Today we still get most of our fresh apples domestically, but nearly all the juice and other processed apples come from China.

For the home grower, apples can be challenging if not impossible to grow organically. Most orchardists, even those who grow rare heirloom varieties, rely on some forms of chemical fungicides and pesticides just to stay in business. But the good ones keep it to a bare minimum, and in some places there are those who can do without completely. If you are among the patient, adventurous few who would like to give it a try, one great resource is, a website for orchards large and small, with a handy primer on community orcharding, which as the name suggests shares the burden and the reward.

Among the first foods to board Slow Food’s Ark USA were some 165 varieties of heirloom apples. In the early 1800s, American nurseries were already offering 100 named varieties of apples for sale; by 1850, more than 500 widely recognized varieties were being cultivated and in 1872, Charles Downing documented close to 1,100 different kinds of apples with their origins in America.

As with many other fruit varieties, the emphasis of apple production has shifted toward apples that can grow in large-scale orchards, and are easily packed and shipped to distant markets. This market importance has lead to the decline of the incredibly rich and diverse American apple culture. In the past decade glossy and tasteless apples have dominated the produce aisles of supermarkets (i.e., the beautiful but mealy Red Delicious, a distant descendant of Iowa’s own Hawkeye). Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith, and other apples imported from Washington State—or during the off-season from Chile and New Zealand—have little of the unique flavor or complexity of locally grown apples.

And this month you can visit Chug Wilson and his family at Wilson’s orchard, just of Highway 1, 2.2 miles north of I-80 (319-354-5651), and try one of his prides, the Song of September—sweetest of the early apples.

Kurt’s new book, A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland, has just been released.