Friday, June 7, 2013

Apples to Apples

I've seen a half-dozen articles about heirloom apples and sustainable agriculture in the past year, and I think that it touches on of the issues that are important in the paleo community. The decline of the heirloom apple follows the evolution of the US industrial agricultural system, the introduction of genetically modified fruits and vegetables, and a sea change in the way that Americans thought about food and the way that we ate.

(from the Wall Street Journal )

So the renewed interest in heirloom apples makes me hopeful that things are changing again when it comes to the way that we think about food--that we care how food is grown, where it's grown, and the heritage of our food. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and even the Huffington Post have published trend pieces on heirloom apples--in-depth articles that delve into our modern food system.

In colonial times in North America, a myriad of apple varieties--over 1500 varieties-- were found on the tables, in the cellars, and in the orchards of American homes--some for eating, some for cooking, and some for cider (often hard cider).

The piece in Mother Jones, Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples is my favorite.

So, why does your supermarket sell only five kinds of apples?

After World War II, Madison Avenue changed the way that food was sold to consumers, and they wanted an attractive, consistently flavored, easily shippable apple that they could put on an advertisement. Simultaneously, farmers found that it was easier to grow and sell five or ten varieties of apples than fifty varieties. The end result is the Red Delicious apple, which makes up over 40 percent of the apples sold in the United States. It's shiny, red, ships with little bruising, and will taste the same whether you buy it in California, New York and Virginia. The thing is, a Red Delicious, contrary to the name, doesn't explode with flavor in your mouth, and the texture is mealy. 

Compare the Red Delicious to the Blue Pearmain, an apple described as an "absolutely delicious dessert apple with a distinct pear flavor and firm white juicy mildly tart flesh. Medium-sized obscurely ribbed and muffin-shaped fruit has a soft opaque greenish-yellow skin with a rosy pink blush and a russet veil."

The beautiful thing about the revival, even aside from the fact that it's a sign of interest in sustainable agriculture, is that it's market based. These apples are coming back not because of grants or government subsidies (ahem, corn subsidies) but because people want them and are willing to pay for them, even at twice the price of a mealy supermarket Red Delicious, and they're willing to drive an hour to the orchard to buy them. People want them, and they're proving with their pocketbooks that these apples are worth preserving--like Paleo/Primal has been doing with grassfed meat and pastured butter. Who's driving it? Hippies, yuppies, vegans, locavores, paleoistas, or groks? I'd assume that it's a combination, and I take it as a good thing if we can all agree on a sustainably-grown Blue Pearmain, Black Oxford, or Baldwin, whether or not we cook it up in Kerrygold or not. 

PS: Want to buy a heirloom apple tree or twenty? They're available for shipping at Fedco Trees, which is owned by the gentleman featured in the Mother Jones article!

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