The challenge in writing such a book is to stay engaging while stepping through many apple descriptions. To make the descriptions parallel enough to permit comparisons without falling into deadly similarity. To use the descriptions to say something as a whole as well as many things in particular.
Rowan Jacobsen, in his Apples of Uncommon Character (Bloomsbury 2014) won me over early with his voice and his views.
He's a winner of the James Beard Award and an accomplished food writer, and he's irresistibly passionate about apples.
Sure enough, Jacobsen engagingly describes 123 "heirlooms, modern classics, & little-known wonders," most on two-page spreads that feature painterly photographs by Clare Barboza. But this alone would be a mere catalog.
Where the author distinguishes himself is his familiarity with the subject, his willingness to go beyond description to criticism, his knowing voice, and his vision of "the second age of the apple" following the fruit's long eclipse during much of the 20th century.
In this light, Jacobsen does not just describe his 123 varieties, he tells their stories. Stories about origins, about names, about flavor.
There's no ginger flavor in Gingergold; it was named for a redhead. Summer Rambo is not named for the Stalone movie—it's the other way around.
Roxbury Russet "ate Roger Williams," (literally), while Macoun is "a seasonal madeline in the memory of many New Englanders."
Kavenaugh, more than 2 centuries old, lost, then found again by apple detectives and now flourishing.
Jacobsen also explores the stories that names tell. For instance,
the upstarts at the University of Minnesota apple breeding program seem to name their apples after strippers: “Sweet Sixteen, Frostbite, Honeycrisp, SweeTango.”
He is convinced that some varieties would be more popular if they just had better names.
The stories come first, but descriptions are a close second. "Celtic knot patterns" of russet decorate Thoreau's favorite apple, the Blue Pearmain. Or: "Like the Incredible Hulk, Mutsu is huge, green, and strangely lovable."
"Looks are the best thing" about St. Lawrence. After praising Autumn Crisp: "If only it didn't try so hard to please."
You may not always agree with Jacobsen's assessments (I don't) but he has discerning tastes and you will value his opinions.
Jacobsen organizes his apples into overlapping categories. So it is that Golden Russet is included under "Cider Fruit" and Red Delicious under "Oddballs." Many of the "Bakers and Saucers" are also first-class eaters.
These include apples you will know and some that you surely do not.
Along with this cast of 123 uncommon characters, Jacobsen includes 22 apple recipes, sweet and savory. In some the apples play at best a supporting role, while in others they take center stage.
Twenty-two recipes make not a cookbook, but rather a chapter that expresses another dimension of this food. I have bookmarked Jacobsen's Tarte Tintin, his no-fuss take on a French classic.
Of particular interest to me, Jacobsen also maps some of the quality trajectories of the keeper apples, tracking the flavors and textures that rise and fall in storage. I now want to revisit some varieties on his schedules.
Did Carrie Nation really chop down all those apple trees?
William Kerrigan casts some healthy doubt on that notion for cider. (For the rise of apple monocultures generally, I'd blame blame refrigeration before Carrie Nation.)
Jacobsen also maintains that Reine de Reinette and King of the Pippins, generally reckoned to be names for the same apple, are really two separate breeds.
Maybe, but Jacobsen does not make his case with anything but a hunch.
A good read any time of year, the 123 characters are especially pleasant companions when there is snow on the ground and the harvest is far away.
At such times it is rejuvenating to learn what a talented enthusiast tastes, what he knows, and what he thinks. What makes this book worthwhile? Jacobsen knows his apples.