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Book Notes: Apple, by Marcia Reiss

A review of Marcia Reiss’ social history of the apple, as told from a US-based perspective.

Apple, by Marcia Reiss, Published by Reaktion Books

In Apple, Marcia Reiss offers a cultural and horticultural history of the fruit, told from a largely US-based perspective. In that respect, Apple partners nicely with The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown (reviewed here) which covers roughly the same ground, with a similar mix of interesting fact and personal anecdote, but from a British point of view

Apple covers a wide range of topics: from the sour botanical origins of the fruit and earlier civilisations’ search for ever-sweeter, edible cultivars, through to the modern quest by development labs and commercial orchards for the perfect blend of aesthetic perfection and shelf-life, driven by the logistical requirements of the supermarket chains.

Along the way, Reiss tells us of the apple’s deep-rooted links to the pioneer spirit of the American West, the trials and tribulations faced by orchardists in the wake of industrialisation. Legendary guerilla orchardist Johnny Appleseed makes an appearance, as you might expect. In reality he was John Chapman, a nurseryman and seller of cheap seedlings to west-bound European settlers. Reiss points out that whilst he may be a colonial folk-hero to many, the mythologising of his story ignores the fact that many native peoples were already tending apple and peach orchards long before he made his move into the Midwest, and that the attacks on and displacement of those peoples away from their crops resulted in the death by starvation of many thousands. The native lands were then cleared by landholding companies that required new settlers to plant orchards in order to secure their claims. Thus the apple became a symbol of US imperial expansion.

The wider symbolism of the apple is examined in the latter chapters of the book. Reiss examines the fluctuating associations that the apple has represented, from the ‘good apples’ of childhood innocence, nutritious health and abundant prosperity to the ‘bad apples’ of original sin, magical fable and advertising association. We also learn that apples have played a key, symbolic role in the political sphere, in situations as diverse as ninenteenth century presidential elections, to the economic depression of the 1930s, and even the Cold War.

There’s a chapter on cider, exploring the portrayal by the temperance movement of this largely rural, home-produced drink as a deadly poisonous social ill, from the mid-nineteenth century through to the nadir of prohibition in the 1930s. Ending on a high note, Reiss mentions the cider revival that’s taking roots in both the US and the UK, something I think we’ll be hearing more about in the next few years, as the ‘craft’ label does for cider what it’s done for beer over the past decade.

Reiss finishes her narrative by looking at the commercial and agricultural position and likely future of the apple, talking about the breeding programmes that seek the perfect supermarket fruit (‘Cosmic Crisp‘ being the current, high-gloss entry to the market). On the flip-side, we’re told about the kick-back against the cosmetic emphasis on uniform predictability in the form of heirloom apple growing and the growth in popularity of organic orcharding, eschewing the heavy pesticide regimes seen as necessary to commercial success, in favour of a much more biosphere-friendly approach to pest and disease control. The spectre of climate change rears its ugly head, and genetic modification is mentioned as a possible path to preventing the sort of harm that a warming atmosphere could do to a plant whose flowering and fruiting depends on a key number of winter ‘cold hours’ to provoke vernalisation and blossom-set each year.

Finally, a chapter on apple varieties recommends a mix of American and Eurpean-bred cultivars that the home-grower or small orchardist might want to seek out, in order to provide themselves with some genuine variety in their growing.

All in all, Apple is a fascinating overview and insight into the role that the titular fruit has played in human society over many centuries, as an essential foodstuff, a source of intoxicating enjoyment, and as a symbolic icon of a wide range of individual causes, local pride, political movements, and commercial branding. I for one found it a hugely rewarding read; as a keen horticulturalist and an organic orchardist I tend to focus mainly on the growth and development of the trees themselves, so this sort of wider picture and deeper historical appreciation of the role that the apple has played over so many years helps to reinforce my reasons for growing apples – and a wider variety of other orchard fruits – in the first place.

Apples are important, they have been so for centuries and will continue to be so, hopefully for centuries to come. They’re certainly too important to entrust their future to the sort of mono-culture mass production demanded by retail giants. The more people who read books such as Apple and, in gaining an appreciation of the possibilities for future diversity, decide to play their part by planting, growing and harvesting from their own heirloom trees, then the richer and better the prospects for the apple, and for all of us, will be.


Apple, by Marcia Reiss, UK Hardback

Apple is published by Reaktion Books in the UK and is available from all good high street bookstores, as well as the following fine online retailing establishments: Amazon* | Book Depository* | Hive | Waterstones | WHSmith | Wordery

* = affiliate link – if you buy the book from here I’ll earn a small referral fee, which will go towards my next gardening book or packet of seeds.

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