Perhaps it was hard at first to know whether the “antique” in the phrase, “antique apple experts,” referred to the apples or to the experts. But when the Hall of Famers of the Heirloom Apple Kingdom gathered on March 19th at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum outside of Madison, it was clear that the so-called “old-timers” invited had much to say about the current status of and future prospects for old-timey apples. Between them, they had more than 350 years growing, pruning, propagating and tasting uncommon American apples, thereby constituting a sort of Buena Vista Social Club for these forgotten fruits.
And so, the Forgotten Fruits Summit organized by the Renewing America’s Food Traditions alliance became the first full gathering of America’s most accomplished back-country fruit explorers, veteran orchard-keepers, horticultural historians, pomological propagators, natural-born nurserymen and hard cider-makers concerned with the destiny of Malus X domestica, the single fruit most imbedded in the American identity. Their task was to determine the best means of restoring apple diversity to our farms, roadhouses, backyards and kitchens, and to revive “apple culture” in all its dimensions on this continent.
They came from Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Arizona and California. They were old and gray, young and pretty, bearded or clean-shaven, Democrat and Republican, but all were remarkably literate about the history of the apple, and all knew how to get their hands dirty to get something done. Their accents were many, prompting one observer to proclaim that she had not heard American English sound so good and varied in many a year. Bill Moretz, a third generation orchard-keeper from Boone, North Carolina, reminded us that “we all have different tastes….variety is the spice of life, so I keep apples not merely to preserve the past but to embrace the future.” The second day of our gathering, as many young urban orchard-keepers and food forest activists joined us, they concurred with Bill’s sentiments, and learned some of the skills essential to finding and propagating the rarest of the rare. They knew that the diversity of cultures in cities like Chicago and Milwaukee required different kinds of apples for their fritters and pies, sauces and ciders, scones and stollen, biernebrod and bratepfel.
But they also knew, as Tom Brown reminded us, “that time is running out.” We’ve already lost many of the 14,000 named varieties that once arched their branches over the American earth, and we’ve lost just as many of the old-timers who knew their stories as well. Some 1500 varieties remain in nurseries, but we’ve been losing an average of thirty fruit nurseries a year since the late 1980’s. Fewer Americans than ever know when and how to select scion wood for propagation, or cut a whip-and-tongue graft, or ferment a batch of hard cider—all commonplace skills a century ago.
And yet there is hope. This spring, one of our honored participants, Creighton Lee Calhoun, will teach a workshop “Grafting for the Future” from which each of the students will take home a tree grafted from one of the 400 varieties growing in the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard at Horne Creek Living Historic Farm near Pinnacle, North Carolina. At Harvest Restaurant founded by Chef Tami Lax in downtown Madison, we sampled some of the first world class hard ciders to come out of the new cideries flourishing in Great Lakes region, many of which are using heirloom apples that had once lost their markets. And we mentored a new generation of urban tree farmers and permaculturists that are bringing apples back to inner city landscapes that had altogether lost them over the last century. As recounted by Tom Burford — the man they call Professor Apple—the American landscape is once again making room for apple diversity and apple culture: “Even a decade ago, I would never have dreamed that such a gathering could happen.” America’s apple traditions are being renewed.