The World of Apples
by Jerry DeNuccio
Apples are my favorite fruit–whole apples, not slices, apples that perfectly fit the grasp of palm and fingers, not slices tweezed between thumb and forefinger. Whole apples, whether red, green, yellow, whether sweet or tart; whether juicy, firm or crisp; whether carmeled, candied, toffeed, or cinnamoned; whether raw, baked, or an ingredient in pies, cobblers,crisps, turnovers, dumplings, pudding, cookies, and cakes.
Apples are America’s favorite dessert fruit, but that’s not the reason they are my favorite fruit. No, my pomaceous love ardor springs from sources beyond the fruit’s taste, versatility, and popularity. Consider, for instances, the prevalence of apples in the world’s myths, legends, and religious traditions. There is, of course, the apple that serpent-seduced Eve plucked from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Her bite, and the subsequent bite of Eve-seduced Adam, inaugurated the origin of sin, the original sin, a fallenness which, according to Christian dogma, passed by issue in perpetuity to their ancestors. That seems a rather harsh inheritance, for which we can thank St. Augustine. Perhaps he had his youthful pillaging of a neighbor’s peach tree in mind.
In mythology golden apples predominate. Zeus gives Hera a tree of golden apples when she accepts his marriage proposal; a clever Hippomenes outraces the never-beaten, swift-footed Atlanta and wins her as his wife when, at different points in the course of their race, he drops three golden apples, which she stops to retrieve; a wily Hercules outwits a gullible Atlas to fulfill his eleventh labor of stealing a golden apple, and a golden apple inscribed with the words “For the most beautiful” and placed in the midst of three banqueting goddesses, sets in motion the discordant chain of events that will culminate in the Trojan War.
In the fairy tale Snow White, a poisoned apple sends the heroine into deep sleep to await the antitoxin of a princely kiss. Legend recounts that Isaac Newton conceived of gravity by seeing an apple fall, and that a proud and freedom-loving William Tell, for refusing to bow to a tyrant’s cap atop a pole, was ordered to shoot an apple off his young son’s head. And then there’s Johnny Appleseed, the nickname given to John Chapman, an18th century Massachusettes vegetarian who, as a missionary to the frontier settlements, planted apple orchards to provide a source of sustenance and to prevent the slaughter of animals.
The prophet Joel emblemizes the celestial famine of Israel’s apostasy by warning that its apple orchard’s “are withered.” In his second Song, Solomon, woozy with lovesickness, asks to be comforted with apples; Proverbs tells us that “ a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver;” and Psalms 17 tells us that one’s lover is the “apple of your eye.” We still use that last quote from Psalms 17, along with Adam’s apple, whimsically attributed to a lump of the sin-and-sweat-of-the-brow-inducing apple that stuck in his throat when he intuited his nefarious deed. Oh, and here’s a Noah joke: Why couldn’t they eat apples on Noah’s ark? Because they came in pears.
Apples have seized our culture like an occupying force. New York is called the “Big Apple,” a Granny Smith served as the icon of the Beatles’ Apple Records, and Steve Jobs, having established Apple, Inc., quite naturally chose an apple with one bite removed to logo products that would increase knowledge, a nod to the Garden story as well as a pun on “byte.” We give apples to teachers, use them to keep the doctor away, warn that a rotten one is infectious, and worry about upsetting a cart of them. We consider a person being apple-cheeked an attractive and healthy feature. We describe something as American as apple pie, even though apples are a non-native fruit, having originated in the Middle East and Central Asia at least two million years ago. American as pecan pie would be more geographically correct.
In literature apples symbolize alienation from the father in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the tonic of wildness in Thoreau’s “Wild Apples,” the chanciness of even the best human provisioning in Frost’s “Goodbye, Keep Cold,” the labor of creative will in “After Apple-Picking,” and a form of payment to itinerant Depression-era workers in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey lists, among the significant thingness of things, “the flavor of an apple,” and asks, “What else do we need.”
Apples are pliable symbols: generosity, sin, discord, knowledge, wisdom, temptation, death, immorality, prosperity, love, the cosmos. As symbols, they sharpen our feeling of what it is like to be a human being in this world, our sense of the thresholds we should cross and those from which we should turn. The apple has an “incalculable wildness,” according to Michael Pollan, “that accounts for its ability to make itself at home in so many different climates.” We could all perhaps bring a bit of that kind of wildness into our lives, a bit of that ability to be settled wherever we find ourselves.
For me, though, the thing about apples is this: beyond the facts of their multiple varieties and uses, beyond all their associations with myth and legend and literature and popular culture, they are beautiful in themselves. They marry food to aesthetics in a full sensory experience: the rounded shape, the stem standing proudly from the dimpled top, the knobby lobes at the blossom end, the fit-in-handness, the smoothness and firmness, the skin’s flecked and brindled hues, the succulent white and ivory flesh, the crunchy mouthfeel, the tang or sweet taste. An apple sliced through on its equator reveals seeds encased in a pentagram so exquisite it would startle Pythagorus into astonishment. Apples are perfect– but their perfection is impermanent, for, like us, they are vulnerable, they brown with exposure, bruise when they fall, wrinkle and wither with time, go to earth, go to seed. And perhaps, like apples, our seeds will rescue us from transience by narrating a story longer than our own.