I bought some apples today – and more of the juicy colored dahlias still crowding the prime corner stall at the entrance to the North Side farmer’s market. It’s not a fancy market. A strip of parking lot, between the bank and the co-op, set aside for maybe 20 local vendors. The pickings are leaner and leaner each week. Still, leeks are stacked high next to the bok choy, and huge sunflower seed heads are dried and ready to fatten the birds (and inevitably the squirrels) before the snow comes.
You probably eat apples a lot – but I don’t anymore. I haven’t bought an apple in over 10 years.* But my heart melted when I heard the little – and I mean little – Hmong couple explaining to another customer that the 2 varieties for sale had grown on one tree.
He and she saw me looking at the apples in their open crates. Honey Crisps streaked with red and yellow, piled next to the deep, ancient red of the Anonymous Apple, with fruit just the size of a small peach.
“Both good, no spray!” they told me. “Same tree?” I asked. “Oh yes, yes! Four kinds, one tree!” they proudly announced. This bit of apple magic has always enchanted me – mostly, I suppose, because it tells an irresistible story of human curiosity and imagination. With a knife and slip of a bud from another tree, your young apple whip will adopt that bud as its own, and grow another, completely different apple for your pies or cider or brandy.
My farmers obviously relished the idea as much as I did. I could clearly see their smiles beaming through their masks. “Oooh!” I said, raising my eyebrows high so they could read my delight. “Four on one tree? Oh, boy! Wonderful!” I took home two Honey Crisps and 2 Anonymous Apples – my indulgence for the week.
You may have forgotten how fully an apple can engage your senses. The snap of the skin, the dark wine tang fused with a burst of sweet, creamy flesh – tender and crisp at the same time, like a perfectly baked potato. I don’t know if any other fruit has remained such a loyal and common companion to us for so long. Antique apple varieties are an edible encyclopedia of human history. Selected for hundreds of years by our ancestors, their flavors connect us to other centuries with every mouthful. But even more wonderous to me, is that any time-traveller would recognize our modern apples, and take the same delight in Red Delicious and Honey Crisp as we do in a Winesap or Red Pippin.
Anonymous Apple, you were worth it. It’s ok to leave aside some pleasures when you need to, for purposes that you believe in. But old pleasures may serve a purpose deeper than the one you’ve chosen. At once new and familiar, they invite you to a discovery at the core of every day – something so sweet, tasted again for the first time.
*I stand by this statement but last year, on the 10th anniversary of Marv’s death, I bought caramel apples for my crew, because Marv and caramel apples, you know? And my friend cut an apple in half for us to share, because sometimes it’s important to cut a caramel apple in half, and share it with someone you love. And, yes. It was as good as you remember.