Thursday, May 3, 2012

Heirloom, antique, and heritage apples

So, what makes an apple an heirloom? Or antique?
Is it just a matter of seniority, or is there more to it than that?

For starters, I rather like this definition from Wikipedia:

An heirloom a cultivar that was commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but which is not used in modern large-scale agriculture.

Still, I don't think this quite nails it. At least not for apples, which scale pretty well compared to, say, wheat. Granny Smith is, to my mind, an heirloom due to her history and her age, yet you can find Granny year 'round in most supermarkets thanks to modern agriculture.

Suppose the rare and wonderful Westfield Seek-No-Further, by some miracle of market forces, were sold in supermarkets across North America. It would still be an heirloom, and no less wonderful (if no longer rare).

Defining as heirlooms or antiques only those things that are hard to find would be a kind of snobbery.

Some writers periodize agriculture based on the advent of the refrigerated railroad boxcar (though they do not always agree about when that was). Anything that originated before that is an heirloom.

For Lee Calhoun, apple maven of the South, the threshold year is 1928, when he says groceries supplanted farms as the primary source for fruit.

These intriguing definitions capture a little of the complexity of how human tastes, technology, and apples co-evolve together.

Such distinctions are really qualitative, not quantitative. "Heirloom" describes something of history and human society, not just biology. It expresses a social relationship.

Suzanne Long tweets that she prefers "the term 'heritage apple' over anything else in current use."

This is an elegant usage that I have sometimes emulated (and, according to Wikipedia, is Australian). The "heritage" quality lives not so much in the apple as in its relationship to human history.

Unfortunately it's not always so useful a part of speech as the other sobriquets. When every word counts, it's handy to be able to write about antiques and heirlooms. However if I ask a farmer if he or she has any "heritages" I am going to get a very strange look.


  1. Smart aleck! But it's true, I would never ask for 'heritages'. I do ask for old fashioned varieties or unusual ones. And I can't remember if I've ever heard anyone at an orchard up here refer to 'heirlooms'. If our orchards have any apples this year, I'll be sure to look and listen for the term.

    1. I just mean they are different parts of speech.

      What's that part called? Not exactly an adjectival noun or nominal adjective as I understand those terms, which are collective plurals: "the sick," "the 1%" and so forth. Whereas "an heirloom" is singular.

  2. Thought of you today when reading this ...

  3. I love the colors, textures, and surface qualities of the apples in this photo. I thought of you yesterday when in the middle of Georgia, in peach country. Of course, you write about apples and not peaches, but I was in an orchard area is the point, and we brought home a nice basket of peaches and big container of strawberries newly picked. Those are the best strawberries I've ever had. And I hope you will forgive me for writing about peaches and strawberries on your apple blog. It did make me think of taking a trip to the apple orchards soon. I know there are some apples that should be ready for picking by June.

    1. I'm a little surprised that your earlies are quite so early. What do you get in June--Vista Bella and Lodi and Paula Red, or are there regional early apples? And how are they?

      As for berries and stone fruit, they are great and someone should write about them. I like to make sweet shortcake biscuits and whipped cream for the strawberries in season.

  4. I've been slow to reply to your questions but yes, Lodi is one of the apples that is, presumably, available in North Georgia orchards now. The other one is called June Apple. Perhaps I'll get up there this weekend. If so, I'll be sure to let you know what I find and what they are like.

    1. I got curious and googled "June Apple." It looks as though different people apply that name to different varieties, including Lodi (and also Yellow Transparent).

      There is also something called the "Red June Apple" that appears to be its own variety.

      We'll be eating our own Lodis and Yellow Transparents, with a little luck, before too much longer.


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