Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A cast of uncommon characters

The apple harvest may have been uneven, but we've had a bumper crop of apple books. They are a joy to read in the bleak off season.

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?
To be sure, there are a few places where Jacobsen doesn't get it quite right. Was Prohibition really the downfall of hard cider and by extension the first "age of apples"?

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.


  1. Agreed. And this is a book to experience in print. At least, that's what won me over. The voice and tone were over the top for digital-only.

    1. Over the top? I guess I am a fan of gonzo apple literature.

    2. My reading of digital books is heavily mediated by search. So there was less context for Jacobson's opinions. And the production values of the print version, so good ! On par w/ Yepsen's little illustrated gem.

    3. I've also been enjoying the complementary Burford and Powell books.

  2. Funny thing. I grafted an oblique cordon apple with King of the Pippins on the bottom and Rein des Reinettes on the top, just to see if they were the same. Both are bearing and so far they look the same. Of course they could have been mixed up at some point.

    I think sweet 16 is a great name for a great apple. I don't think honeycrisp is so bad, but clearly a marketing slant, which probably works. Sweetango is bizarre like many modern apple names. There are a lot of really bad names out there. I have a huge list of apple names already, just in case I ever come up with anything worth naming. I think the problem for me would be choosing between too many awesome names, not coming up with one good one. But, of course, it is a matter of taste and there's no pleasing everyone.

    1. I share Jacobsen's fascination with apple names. See, for instance, Hubbardston Nonesuch.

      There are many names that are especially marvelous in the mouth: Ashmead's Kernal. Cox's Orange Pippin.

      Here's an old-fashioned name that could pass as marketing-driven branding for tomorrow's UMinn club apple: Winesap.

      In any case, the names are part of the story, and often tell a story themselves.

    2. I too adore old apple names, e.g., Westfield Seek-No-Further.

      Not sure how I feel about Sweet Sixteen or Sweet 16 naming, but I sure do love its hint of licorice and wish I could buy it more easily.

    3. Michael Pollan calls these bombastic old names "tub thumpers."

      I think of words like "nonesuch" and "seek-no-further" as the 19th-century equivalents of "crisp" and "honey."

  3. Thanks for the review and recommendation, Adam. How does this compare with Burford's Apples of North America? It seems like they are similar in scope and execution. Does it read differently, or does he focus on different types of apples?

    1. Steve, since I have not yet (Yet. Yet!) read Burford, I have to hope that Suzanne Long, who has, is still reading these comments and will share her considered judgment.

      Whatever similarities there may be, Jacobsen has his own distinct voice.

    2. Burford tends to be more succinct in the descriptions, sharing his keen perspective as a veteran grower. His alphabetical, regionally diverse listing would be especially great for the home orchardist. Jacobsen writes more for the apple geek gourmand, his listing is by the more subjective category (e.g., Summer, Keepers). He's an opinionated, entertaining apple enthusiast. The books are complementary, I'm a fan of both.

      The Jacobsen recipes are apple pr0n, I'm looking forward to trying a few. Burford's book doesn't include recipes but his no-nonsense pie recipe has a great listing of possible apple combos and can be found at


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