Do people keep life lists of the apples that fall into their lives, akin to the records birders maintain? I’m thinking of starting one, based on my time spent with Rowan Jacobsen’s just-released “ Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, & Little-Known Wonders ” (Bloomsbury; $35).
The James Beard Award-winning author is equally comfortable writing about foodstuffs and the environment, with titles to his credit that include “Fruitless Fall” and “American Terroir.” But it might be his passion for autumn’s signature fruit that drew me into his newest work. He has grown apples in Vermont for the past decade and is clearly well versed in provenance and varietal distinctions.
“I am amazed at the variety in the apple world,” he said in a phone interview, recalling the research that led him to a single USDA orchard in Geneva, N.Y., with 2,000 kinds. “It’s crazy, inventive, creative genius — almost like the Robin Williams of fruit.”
America had some 7,000 varieties in the 1700s and 1800s, many grown on self-sufficient farms, Jacobsen says. Modern markets didn’t want to deal with the distribution hassles of small growers, and once huge orchards were established in Washington state, which now produces more than half of the apples grown in the United States, the relatively trouble-free Red Delicious became the major player sent to supermarket apple bins.
Trouble is, Red Delicious looks a lot better than it tastes.
“Consumers really responded to the deep red color,” even though the flesh of that apple has small, dry cells that don’t exactly burst with juice, Jacobsen says. The word “mealy” comes to mind. That’s one reason the public has found a recent antidote in the juicy Honeycrisp.
The author could have produced a more encyclopedic volume, not unlike the ones that seem to land with a thud each year on reviewers’ desks. So I appreciate the way Jacobsen edited individual descriptions: just long enough to pique my interest, with spot-on flavor and aroma profiles. The Roxbury Russet is no poster child, with a drab, matte skin similar to that of an Asian pear. But I am curious about its spicy notes. Sweet and compact, the Pixie Crunch is a sleeper among the 123 types in the book: the perfect kid size, comparable to what marketers were going for in 2012 with the branded clementines called Cuties.
What Jacobsen did not skimp on are the full-bleed pictures, shot by Seattle photographer Clare Barboza. The author spent weeks driving around the country, he says, building a collection of 600 to 700 samples he would transport home via “the biggest coolers in the back of my Subaru.”
The book ends on a high note, for me, in the form of savory and sweet recipes. They are simple, and almost none call for peeling; that’s Jacobsen’s preference. The skins add a nice textural element in an apple-and-lime tart. Even his maple applesauce, with its recommended mix of tender, thin-skinned apples such as Gravenstein, Cortland, Yellow Transparents and Golden Delicious, plus a touch of spice and butter, proved a small revelation in the amount of body a smooth puree can contain.
Jacobsen will soon begin working with Whole Foods Markets in the Northeast to expand its heirloom apple program, he says. So maybe my life list will soon involve a shopping cart.
What’s your favorite heirloom apple? Jacobsen will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.