When I first moved to Kansas a few years ago, I lived in an apartment on a beautiful farm owned by some friends. Less than 100 yards from my apartment was a large commercial orchard where my friends grew more than 40 varieties of apples, along with peaches, Asian pears, various types of berries, grapes and cherries in season.
I moved to the farm in late July, and, though I was happy with the proximity of all that fruit, I viewed the situation as convenient, nothing more.
Then the apples started ripening, and I can honestly say those first few late summer and early autumn strolls through the orchard actually did change my life. Until then, my knowledge of apples had been the grocery store varieties – Red Delicious, Empires, Granny Smiths and a few Romes, for baking pies and making an occasional batch of homemade applesauce. I liked apples OK, but they were just … apples.
Then one day, I plucked an apple from one of the earliest-ripening trees in the orchard. I rubbed it clean on my jacket sleeve and took a big bite out of it. I literally stopped in my tracks, looked at the apple in my hand, then looked back at the tree in wonder. It was as though the "Hallelujah Chorus" had just started up in my taste buds. The little marker said Jonathan, and even though I’m certain I had bought that variety at some point in my life, this tart, rich little jewel made it seem that I had never eaten an apple before.
That was in August. Throughout that month, into September and clear to the end of October, the hits just kept on coming. I discovered the joy of really fresh fruit, of course, but even more than that, I found out about this whole distinction in gardening called "heirlooms." I discovered that the apples I loved most – the Esopus Spitzenberg, the Fameuse, the Grimes Golden and the Golden Russet, among others – were all very old breeds, and that there once had been hundreds and hundreds of other apple varieties in the world.
Modern agriculture has reduced the numbers available to about five varieties that travel well and can sit around in grocery stores or in storage for months at a time. However, those varieties are not necessarily valued for their flavor and texture, as anyone who has bitten into one of those mealy apple-looking things on the grocery shelves can attest. These old varieties had so many delightful qualities they hardly tasted like the same kind of fruit. Tart or sweet, crispy or creamy, tangy or spicy, the diversity of flavor, texture, color and shape was simply awe-inspiring.
Tasting those heirloom fruits and beginning to investigate other efforts to preserve and pass on our agricultural heritage foodstuffs – beans, melons, tomatoes and a long list of other fruits, vegetables and flowers that are now being rescued by some of the wonderful organizations and individuals – truly provided a new direction in my life.
Whenever and wherever I can, I will help with this preservation effort – even if that only means taking great big enthusiastic
bites out of some of the best-tasting fruit on the planet!