Thursday, May 28, 2015

New England apples from an expert in the field

Published last fall, Apples of New England is a rich guide to a topic close to my heart.

The small volume is somewhere between a coffee-table book, a primer, and a reference.

The author, Russell Steven Powell, is the former executive director of the New England Apple Association; he keeps his own apple blog. Documentation of each apple includes meticulous photos by Barr Lois Weeks, the current director.

In addition to a catalog of hundreds of varieties, Powell tells us some of the central stories about apples, with an emphasis on their New England roots in America.

A Proud History
Roxbury
Powell's first chapter is nothing less than a history of apples in the region, from the first Roxbury Russet to the modern hard-cider renaissance.

There are shoutouts to Ronald Prokopy, the father of integrated pest management, and to S. Lathrop Davenport, whose heirloom collection is conserved at Sturbridge Village and Tower Hill.

Powell even provides short detours though cider-donut territory and the relationship between apples and abolitionism.

Chapman and Thoreau
In his second chapter, Powell finds parallels between apple evangelist John Chapman ("Johnny Appleseed") and Henry David Thoreau, two champions of wild ungrafted fruit "born within 25 miles of each other in Eastern Massachusetts" but who never met.

This short section provides a contemplative counterpoint to the rest of the book. It's an invitation to partake of the wellsprings of the author's personal relationship to the fruit.

The Modern Orchard
For one who delights in eating and knowing about apples, it is strangely agreeable to shift and regard this fruit the way that farmers do: as crops.

From this point of view apples are investments subject to the hazards of nature, to be cared for, husbanded, managed, and, ultimately, economically exploited.

Powell's final narrative chapter, really an extension of his first, brings us up to date with a description of modern pomaculture as practiced in New England today. Here the prose is again dry but clear and authoritative.

An Impartial Catalog
These chapters are but prologue to the main event: Powell's apple descriptions, short and taut.

There are hundreds of them organized economically in the same fashion.

First, a table of characteristics such as origin, parentage, harvest dates, and  5-point tart-to-sweet flavor scale;

Second, a photograph (usually);

Finally, a few paragraphs describing appearance, texture, and taste.

The second or third paragraph often tells a story about the apple or its name.

This admirably compact format permits quick scanning and comparisons. However the parallel structure inevitably becomes repetitive and this is not by and large a book for browsing.

Powell's numeric flavor scale, meanwhile, often does not square with my experience or even with his own observations.

For instance, though Powell describes the Blue Pearmain as "sweet," he rates it a "2" ("more tart than sweet") on his flavor scale.

Blue Pearmain
Crimson Crisp is "sweet-tart," yet gets a "4" ("more sweet than tart").

I found Powell's observations more reliable than his numerical ratings. As always, tasting is believing.

His final chapter of rare New England varieties describes hundreds of heritage apples, some nearly extinct.

These descriptions are even briefer than his other reviews, providing a tantalizing taste of flavors nearly lost to time.

Apples of New England is aptly subtitled A User's Guide. The book rewards the attentive reader with a wealth of knowledge superbly organized.

It nourishes rather than quenches a healthy curiosity about the fruit.

As Powell tells us, "Whatever we know about apples and how to grow them, there will always be more to know."

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