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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

Month

October 2012

A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: The Odyssey

Homer print by John Faber the Elder
Source: British Museum, 1902,1011.942

Homer’s Odyssey, written in the 8th or 9th century BCE, contains what is believed to be the first written mention of apples in the ancient world:

“Outside the gate of the outer court there is a large garden of about four acres with a wall all round it. It is full of beautiful trees- pears, pomegranates, and the most delicious apples.” 

Mycenean hero Odysseus sees the orchard when he seeks refuge in the court of King Alcinous. This was the first of what would become many ancient stories featuring apples.

One of the most well-known Greek myths concerns the golden apple labeled “To the fairest” that Eris, goddess of strife and discord, threw among the guests at the wedding celebration of Peleus and Thetis. True to her name, Eris’ apple caused a fight between Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. Each claimed the apple and its inscription for herself. They eventually agreed to make Paris, the son of the King of Troy, settle the matter. After much bribery among the goddesses, Paris chose Aphrodite because she had promised him the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. This promise ultimately led to the Trojan War.

This wasn’t the only time Aphrodite became involved with apples. The goddess of love, Aphrodite frequently appeared with apples and as a result, apples featured in many Greek myths involving love, courtship, and marriage. Perhaps the most famous is the story of Atalanta. Racing all of her suitors to avoid marriage, Atalanta manages to outrun all but Hippomenes, who defeated her not by speed, but by cunning. Aphrodite gave him three golden apples, which he threw at Atalanta, distracting her enough to win the race and her hand in marriage as the prize.

But interestingly enough, the Greek word melon was used for almost any kind of round fruit that grows on a tree. So the many legendary apples of Greek myth – from Homer to Atalanta – may have been other kinds of tree fruit or perhaps no particular fruit at all. It’s important to note, though, that Europeans interpreted these classical references to fruit as apples, just as they had the supposed apple in the Garden of Eden.

Apples meant something both symbolically and literally to people. As apple trees took root around the world, its fruit took root in art, poetry, music, mythology, legend, and prose. The apple inspired an explosion of literature and illustration all over the temperate world, a degree of adulation nearly impossible to imagine for any other fruit.

A History of the Apple in Ten Objects: Pie

Apple pie
Source: Sage Ross

Fall is pie season. Sure, other seasons offer their fair share of delicious berry and fruit pies, but nearly everyone can agree that pie reaches its apogee in the fall. Pecan, pumpkin, sweet potato, and of course, apple.

There’s nothing more American than apple pie, right? Well

Recipes for apple pie – or at least something we’d recognize as a pie with a crust and a sweet filling – have been around in England, Italy, France, and Germany since the Middle Ages. The French tend to prefer open-faced tarts while the English placed chunks of apple in sturdy crusts. English playwright and poet Robert Green wrote in 1590 that he could think of no greater compliment to give a beautiful woman than “They breath is like the steame of apple-pyes.” I suppose it could have been worse…

English colonists brought their pies with them to America. These pies were nearly as robust as the hardy colonists themselves with the apples buried in a hard thick crust that often played the dual role of crust and cooking vessel. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796), contained two recipes for apple pie and one for Marlborough pudding, a kind of pie that used stewed instead of fresh apples.

But even if we didn’t invent the pie, we certainly made the apple pie our own, as evidenced by that popular expression. In a 1759 letter home to Sweden, colonist Israel Acrelius wrote from Delaware that “Apple pie is used throughout the whole year… It is the evening meal of children. House pie, in country places, is made of Apples neither peeled nor freed from their cores, and its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it.” Characters in 19th century novels frequently ate, purchased, or baked apple pies. In Little Women, Jo teaches her niece Daisy to bake an apple pie. Many New Englanders and people in rural communities ate apple pie for breakfast in the 19th century, seeing it as a wholesome and filing way to start the day.

In the 1890s, we began to eat apple pie and ice cream with the title “a la mode.” The title (if not the idea of eating the two together) supposedly came from the Cambridge Hotel in New York state where Charles Townsend regularly ordered his apple pie with ice cream. When he was asked what his dessert was called by Mrs. Berry Hall, a diner seated near him one night, he said he didn’t know. She promptly dubbed it “a la mode.”

A History of the Apple Ten Objects: Red Delicious

Red Delicious
Source: A Daily Apple

Apologies to all Red Delicious lovers, but the Red Delicious is not a very delicious apple – at least to me. Even so, it’s one of the most popularly grown apples in America. Its characteristic profile – long with five prominent bumps at the base – has been immortalized as the logo of Washington-grown apples since the 1960s. It really is a perfect looking apple. Unfortunately, though, its bland, cottony flavor belies those sharp looks. It wasn’t always this way, though.

The original Red Delicious was found growing on Jesse Hiatt’s farm near Peru, Iowa. Hiatt had tried to kill the tree several times, but each year the root sent up new shoots so he finally gave up and let it grow. When the tree finally bore its first fruit in 1872, he fell in love with its sweet flavor and perfume-y aroma. The apples weren’t the deep, uniformly red color we know today but rather streaked with shades of red and yellow. Hiatt named his new find “Hawkeye.”

In the 1890s, Hiatt entered his apple in a contest sponsored by the Stark Brothers Nursery of Missouri to find the best new apple. Clarence Stark loved the Hawkeye and declared it the best in the country. He purchased the rights to propagate the Hawkeye, renamed it Delicious (the Yellow Delicious would not be found until the early 20th century so no color distinction was yet necessary), and spent nearly a million dollars promoting it to apple growers and eaters. By World War II, the Red Delicious had become America’s favorite apple.

But popularity has its downsides in the fruit world. As production and breeding of the apple increased, the Red Delicious began to change as taste took a backseat to durability and appearance in the global apple market. The apple became more symbolic of perfection rather than perfection itself, which has, perhaps, contributed to its decline in popularity in recent years.

 

 

A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Garden of Eden

Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Garden of Eden isn’t an object per se, but it’s hard – maybe impossible – to talk about the apple without at least mentioning that famous event in that famous garden in that really, really famous book. Of all the ideas associated with apples, the notion of paradise probably springs to mind most readily. Most modern Christians believe that Eve snatched the apple for Adam at the serpent’s bidding, forever banishing them from Paradise.

But there’s a problem with this version of events. The original Hebrew text only says “fruit” – it never says which fruit, apple or otherwise. But artistic depictions of the event, ranging from serious religious paintings to cartoons, nearly always show an apple as the fruit in question.

How did that happen?

The apple began appearing in devotional works  in Western art in the Middle Ages. Early Christian scholars interpreted the forbidden fruit to be an apple, possibly because the Latin word malum can mean both “apple” or “evil.” It also probably helped that apples were more popular in Europe, where most of these Christians lived, than in the Middle East, where the Garden likely grew. They needed a fruit, looked out the window, saw apples, and voila! Apples received the… crown.

However, it’s pretty unlikely that sweet apples could grow on land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Apple seeds require a cold chill to germinate, a climactic condition that area of the world is not known for. The Eastern Church, perhaps more climactically aware, favored figs as the forbidden fruit. The struggle between apples and figs played out for centuries in religious art.

But the fig has something else in its favor besides climate – what happens after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit? They cover themselves in fig leaves, not apple branches!

It didn’t really matter what the fruit was, though, because after the Garden of Eden, the possession of apples came to be associated with danger, desire, and fecundity – an association that proved hard to shake for many centuries.

Just to confuse matters more, some scholars now suppose the fruit to have been a pomegranate.

History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Paris Green

Paris green was the first arsenical insecticide used on apples. Developed in the 1870s, it was developed to control the codling moth, a pest accidentally brought to North America by European settlers.

Before the late 19th century, pesticides and insecticides were not widely used in North America. Many of the pests that would eventually become troublesome had not yet made the trip to the New World. Public perceptions of how fruit should look also discouraged the use of pesticides – some pest damage was een as natural and unavoidable. Many people saw no problem with bumpy, pock-marked fruit. Still-life paintings from before the 19th century clearly show insect damage and disease. Insects simply came with the territory of fresh fruit consumption.

All this began to change in the 19th century as more growers began producing fruit for market and fresh eating rather than for cider and home consumption. Blemish-free fruit became the new standard.

By the 1940s, apple growers used up to seven applications of lead arsenate each season. And after World War II, DDT found a place in the orchard.

While concerns over pesticide use led to the development of integrated pest management for apples, pesticide use on apples remains higher than on most other crops as fruit growers strive to meet marketplace demands for inexpensive and perfect, shiny fruit.

 

 

A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Ships

William Halsall, Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor (1882)

In 1620, Separatists from England (otherwise known as the Pilgrims) arrived in what would become the United States aboard the Mayflower. The onboard menu was far less attractive than what draws travelers to the cruise buffet lines today – hard biscuits, salt pork, dried meats, oatmeal, fish, and a few pickled things. The Pilgrims were not the somber kill joys we tend think of them as – the ship also included stores of alcohol (legend has it that the Pilgrims only stopped in Massachusetts because the beer was running low and not because they actually wanted to settle on Cape Cod) as well as apple seeds for growing the fruit that would make hard cider. The Pilgrims shared a widespread belief that water was unwholesome and dangerous and so preferred to drink the fruits of fermentation.

Like the horses that carried apples overland, ships carried apples overseas. European explorers and colonists brought favorite apple varieties with them to the New World. Some of the first colonists tried planting grafted Old World apple trees but most did not fare well in their new environment. Fortunately, they also planted seeds, which tended to do better. As people moved further inland, they took their apples with them, establishing orchards in the Midwest and on the Pacific coast by the late 19th century.

Apples also traveled to South America with Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The apple trees became so thick and vigorous that by the time Charles Darwin landed in Chile in 1835, he claimed to have nearly missed the Chilean port of Valdivia for the tangle of foliage and fruit.

Apples arrived in Australia in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip established the English colony of Port Jackson (today’s Sydney). And the infamous Captain Bligh had a soft spot for plants, sending the Bounty’s  botanist to plant apple seedlings on the coast of Tasmania.

In 1862, writer Henry David Thoreau praised the apple’s sea legs, declaring that the apple “emulates man’s independence and enterprise. It is not simply carried… but like him, to some extent, it has migrated to this New World.”

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