Friday, October 17, 2014

An Unlikely Heirloom, by Susan Futrell

It’s sacrilege to think of the Red Delicious as an heirloom, but in fact it has a humble and impeccable pedigree. The original Red Delicious tree was a stubborn seedling that sprouted in Jesse Hiatt’s field in Madison County, Iowa, in 1872. Over time, the branches chosen for grafting were selected for shape, color, and durability, and the modern flavor rarely lives up to its name. Strains of the original, sometimes called Hawkeye Delicious, can still be found and tasted.  

Heirloom trees and well-bred modern apples all trace back to seedlings that someone loved enough to keep and pass along. Zeke Goodband, orchardist at Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont, told NPR recently that eating and growing heirloom apples is “sort of like a chain letter” through history. Letter writing and apple eating are both among the most democratic of arts, and thankfully not yet lost.

Susan Futrell is writing a book about apples for the University of Iowa Press.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Every year from April to October, the Sánchez family traveled—crowded in the back of trucks, camping in converted barns, tending and harvesting crops across the breadth of the United States. In 1951, Saúl Sánchez began to contribute to his family’s survival by helping to weed onions in Wind Lake, Wisconsin. He was eight years old. In this excerpt from Rows of Memory: Journeys of a Migrant Sugar-Beet Worker, Sánchez invites us to appreciate the largely unrecognized and poorly rewarded strength and skill of the laborers who harvest the fruits and vegetables we eat.


I write this memoir to leave behind some testimony of a way of life that has disappeared perhaps forever. It is a personal narrative based on experience, taken from memory, and written years after the episodes it narrates. These episodes may not seem exalted or seem like exceptional accomplishments to the reader, but they are to the author. They are exalted because the people who appear here sacrificed a great part of their lives, and in some cases all of their lives, for the benefit of their families. And they are exceptional because it is the narrative of a people who not only survived for years under shocking living conditions but also because of those individuals who appear in these pages managed to triumph in their lives. If we also add the fact that these people spoke Spanish and not English, it is not difficult to understand why they embody those exalted and exceptional qualities that one finds in epics.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Apple-ocracy, by Susan Futrell

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.