Apples have been called a democratic fruit: every seed is unique, and a tree grown from seed will produce apples not quite like any that came before. Those few that are especially sweet, tart, juicy, keep well, make the best pie, or just plain look pretty end up being named, grafted, and known. The great thing about this is there are so many of them, and the democratic thing about it is there are almost as many opinions and favorites as there are apples.
Iowa was a leading apple and fruit growing state up through the early 1900s. The big old trees planted in that era are mostly gone now. But old varieties—Wealthy, Grimes Golden, Wolf River, Yellow Transparent, Stayman’s Winesap, and hundreds more—can still be found at farmers’ markets, pick-your-own orchards, and in the neighbor’s back yard. A library of apple trees grows on the slopes of the Seed Savers orchard in northeast Iowa (among the hundreds of trees is one from Aldo Leopold’s family orchard in Burlington). Good citizens of this apple-ocracy want to taste as many of these old varieties as possible. Picking a favorite is optional but nearly inevitable.
I’ve been watching the progression of the season’s apples at the farmers market for a few weeks now, starting with an early variety or two—Paula Red or Duchess. By the first of October, the two orchards at our local market were bountiful with choices. When I walked into my local grocery and saw Song of September apples for sale, I knew it was really apple season. Only one orchard near my town grows this sweet-tart, round, red beauty, great for cooking and eating fresh, so I knew where they came from. I’ve been out to Wilson’s to pick them right from the tree, and I know they aren’t ready to pick until the very end of their namesake month. It made me happy to see them in a grocery store where everyone shopping could see for themselves what a great-looking, beautiful-sounding fruit it is.
Susan Futrell is writing a book about apples for the University of Iowa Press.