Culinate

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Apple of my eye

The Delicious clan

By
November 20, 2012

As my husband was reading nursery catalogs in search of apples to plant come spring, he informed me that my favorite apple, the Spencer, is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the McIntosh.

I wrinkled my nose pettishly. For my craven hipster soul, this was like learning that Wilco is made up of members of REO Speedwagon and Lawrence Welk’s orchestra: nonsensical and offensive. Unright.

Yet there it was in the lineage notes: Golden Delicious and McIntosh.

My husband, ever quick to salve my wounds, offered that Golden Delicious was not actually related to Red Delicious.

Right now, some of you are thinking, “Really. This is what you get your undies in a bunch about?” Others: “I like Red and Golden Delicious. She’s a snob.” Still others: “How can Golden Delicious not be related to Red Delicious? They’re both clearly members of the Delicious Clan.”

To the first, I was not so very upset. To the second, probably. To the third, the apple-namers only have so many ways to get us drooling. The word “delicious” sometimes gets used higgledy-piggledly.

Illustration by Joan Menefee.

I love the Spencer because, back when I was 18, I ate a single one. It probably stayed in my mouth for a total of three minutes. (I am a gobbler.) I don’t even remember what this specific apple looked like, though I faintly recollect it seeming a little on the small side. The taste, however, was so sweet, sharp, and spicy that the word “Spencer” can make me drool 25 years later.

And, yes, I have been campaigning to get a Spencer for our little orchard. Every time Devin’s nose goes into a catalog, the Spencer subject arises; I am like a seven-year-old begging for a puppy. Unfortunately, since the Spencer is neither particularly cold-hardy or disease-resistant, it continues to shimmer on the horizons of past and future.

But why is the Spencer so rare?

Michael Pollan taught us a few things about plants in his 2001 book The Botany of Desire, including the idea that the forces that drive species selection also drive homogenization. That’s the story of thousands of apple varieties developed globally over millennia turning into about six choices (if we’re lucky) available in most grocery stores today.

The sickly and sensitive Spencer, sweet though it might be, lost out to hardier, more predictably pretty apple varieties. Growers learned that though we eat with our mouths, we shop with our eyes. Apples that pop visually (that big red one!) find their way into our grocery carts more often than small ones, especially when those small ones get mealy and brown in a hurry. (Even with my food-buying allegiances clear, I am sometimes angered by the short lifespan of pears. How can two pears I buy on the same day taste so different — one ho-hum and the other smashingly perfect?)

I can’t help but see parallels between the rigidity and narrowness of the produce aisle and the rigidity and narrowness of other retail spaces — clothing, furniture, and electronics, for instance. When a retailer has to make bets on what people will buy, her aversion to financial risk translates into a lack of plant or product diversity.

Perhaps less obvious at the outset is the fact that people don’t like choices as much as they think they do. Faced with a dozen different varieties of apples, some will hover in the produce section twice as long as they want to, stressing over which apple to put in their cart.

This is a scene I witness each winter, watching my husband choose apple trees. The difference, of course, is that my husband is making a commitment to care for a living organism, hopefully for a few decades, rather than shooting for a nice mouth-feel for five minutes. (He’s a better chewer than I am.) We think about the fact that our trees will outlive us. We choose them for taste and appearance, but also for hardiness and ease of care.

My study of apples teaches me that our consumer choices also outlive us. That legacy is a set of habits and structures, the machinery of a mostly profitable market that links growers, merchants, and end-consumers, and also millions of trees. The memories, dreams, and fears of each group end up forming the realities of others in the chain.

My small comeuppance at learning that Spencer is a daughter of Golden Delicious suggests that we don’t always know what our loves are linked to. But we ought to.