Saturday, November 22, 2014

How much is a story worth?

Stories have worth, of the "priceless" variety. But do they also have cash value?

I don't mean storytelling, which is a craft and an art that, thank goodness, people pay for. I mean the stories themselves.

This blog is largely about the stories that apples have, so the question interests me. And as it happens I have a story about that.

There is a high-end supermarket chain that prides itself in quality natural foods. As it happens, there are 3 of these markets close to where I live in eastern Massachusetts.

Last month the Medford store had a display of unlabeled apples that looked promising. I made the mistake of asking what they were, but of course no one knew exactly.

In a place that prides itself on its produce, however, a question like mine is taken if anything a little too seriously. Consequently the price of my inquisitiveness was to follow the apple as it was passed earnestly from market employee to employee in search of an answer.

We collected a small entourage of stockers and checkers and at least one other curious shopper.

There was a PLU number on the apple, which the checker punched into a register. She told me, "Oh, that's an Heirloom apple," in the same authoritative tone of voice that one might use to say, That's a McIntosh, or a Honeycrisp.

Most heritage varieties do not have their own PLU numbers (with a few exceptions like Granny Smith or McIntosh), so honestly what did I expect?

I took things no further, but think the checker felt she had perhaps let me down, because she gave me one of the apples to take home. It proved to be a Cox's Orange Pippin, quite a lovely and rare thing to find in a supermarket, however exalted, in Massachusetts.

(Apparently Cox's does rate its own PLU, which American grocers could use if they like.)

"4208" is just the generic code for apples, to which grocers may assign their own values.
I said to myself, what a lost opportunity for the market! Ironic for a store that has elevated the lavish commodification of food fetishes (like mine) into a business plan.

Those Cox apples grew on scions of a single tree raised from seed in the 19th century by a retired brewer in Colnbrook, not far from London. They are highly prized. They have a marvelous English name that is a pleasure to speak aloud. Sometimes they make odd noises.

But all that—Cox's story—had been stripped away from the fruit. Did it matter? Should it? They taste as good.

It seems funny to say so, but Cox's was not in short supply last month, so I did not immediately race back to Medford for more. But a few weeks later I was in the Cambridge store and saw a sign for Cox's, but no Cox's.

By that time I wanted some more, so I asked about them and was told, Sorry, sold out.

Up the road I went to the Medford store. There were the apples, still unlabeled. And, available.

So I got some. But what is a story worth?

Well, Cox's story sold a bunch of apples in Cambridge and might have sold more in Medford, had anyone known to tell it.


  1. What a fascinating post! One of the things I like best about apples is exactly what you're talking about--the incredible stories behind the varieties. Wholefoods is missing the boat by not telling the story!

    1. @love: Well, the Cambridge store got it right this year. But I've gone in there and found different heritage varieties jumbled together in a box labeled "Black Oxford." Or not labeled at all.

      Here's a thought experiment for grocers: Repackage all your cheeses together in generic boxes labeled "cheese." How does that work out?


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