Thinking about Johnny Appleseed

September 22, 2009 · 2 comments

basket_O_apples

When I was in sixth grade, my school put on a presentation of a musical called Johnny Appleseed. I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals, but at the tender age of twelve it didn’t occur to me that singing and stage acting a story about a lifelong bachelor that went around planting apple orchards and wearing second-hand clothing was a bit, I don’t know, strange?

To answer your question, no, I didn’t play a part (though I do have an unfortunately still un-repressed memory of singing in the choir). What I did do was draw pictures of apples. See, as far as identities go in middle school, I had managed to garnish the reputation as “artist,” meaning: I could draw an apple. The stage-dressing powers-that-were decided to have the walls of the cafeteria/auditorium lined with drawings of apples. I agreed to accomplish the task, and set to figuring out how to draw, oh, a dozen or so different-looking apples.

Since at that time I was only aware of two kinds (red delicious and granny smith), I had some research to do. I’m sure I ended up with drawings of McIntosh, Cortland, and the like; I honestly couldn’t tell you if my life depended on it. But I have a distinct memory of thinking that I would never eat the apples I was drawing… that they must’ve died along with Mr. Appleseed himself.

Well, it just so happens that I now live in one of the states where Johnny planted his trees. Not that a great variety of apples can’t be found in many other states, but I’ve never lived in them; and in my life I’ve never seen the variety I was met with last Saturday at the farmer’s market. There are a few orchards who sell their apples and pears, but one in particular has the best selection. They had no less than 25 varieties on display, and 2 guys who were willing to discuss the subtle differences between them all. These guys knew their apples.

I wanted apples for both sauce and eating. For the sauce, they pointed me in the direction of the Summer Rambo. A good size, easy to peel, and great flavor for sauce. They also suggested I use a mixture of varieties for sauce-making, and suggested the ol’ standby, McIntosh (or, “macs,” as they called them) as a good partner. For eating, I was immediately steered toward the (apparent) favorite in Great Britain: the Cox New Pippin. This was a solid eating apple: great texture, very juicy, and good flavor, not far from a Gala (in my extremely limited apple-tasting opinion). The Honeycrisp is by far the best-seller, with other orchards selling out of their entire supply within 20 minutes of the market’s opening. It’s also the priciest (gotta love good ol’ macroeconomics); and for a dollar more per pound, it was going to be a hard sell. But this woman walked up, and started going on. And on. For an eternity, gushing, really, almost embarrassing herself, about how good these Honeycrisp apples are. I’ve had them, from the grocery, but my most recent memory of them was hearing a woman on NPR talk about them like they were the cheap hussy of the apple world; a ‘new’ apple, all glitz, but no real character. But this woman at the market, the way she was singing its praises… I sort of felt like I had to try them. So as I’m putting a few in my basket, I ask the guys about their feelings on the Honeycrisp. They admit that, sure, it’s a thin-skinned, juicy, sweet apple. Great for eating.

But.

See? I knew it!

This one over here, the Sweet Sixteen? It’s better.

As the gushing woman starts to gasp and sputter her disbelief, I just quietly walk over and throw a few in my basket. An apple-tasting was in order.

When I got home, it took a while to re-decipher which apples were which (I thought I had it totally figured out at the market, even separating apples into different bags… but when I got home, they magically homogenized into a bunch of apples that looked remarkably similar). Once I knew who was who, I succumbed to my curiosity and grabbed a Sweet Sixteen as I ran out to do more errands. One bite, and I knew what those guys meant. It was sweet, juicy, with that longed-for texture, like the made-up Honeycrisp. But there was a depth and subtlety of flavor that I’ve never tasted in an apple. It was almost like drinking a glass of wine and considering tasting notes; there were hints of pear and grass, in my apple. The complexity was eye-opening; I was having a real apple, perhaps for the first time.

As I crunched happily, I couldn’t help but think about those drawings that hung on the wall of our school. I wonder how they would have been different, even better, had I tasted the apples I was drawing. I was doing the equivalent of painting from a photograph; it’s just not the same as painting an object in real life. At that time, though unaware, I did not know a real apple. I only knew the photographic equivalent, the shiny grocery-store red delicious (it’s no wonder I didn’t like apples).

Johnny Appleseed: he was an odd guy. But I can think of worse things to do in this life than going around the country planting apple orchards; especially if he was planting the likes of the Sweet Sixteen. Now that I think about it, perhaps a group of tween-aged performers singing and dancing in his honor wasn’t such an inappropriate form of paying homage. And while I don’t regret a lack of stage presence in my participation, I do wish that it had taken something less than 25 years for me to finally get a taste of what all the fuss was about.

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