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Fugitive Knowledge

I never expected to receive an email from the Wayne County Airport Police. I had been so disoriented by the unpleasantness of immigration, crossing from Canada to the United States, that I’d dropped my travel notebook in Detroit airport. I’d only discovered its absence when unpacking in Ann Arbor and, as with most deep, unhappy losses, had only begun to realise how much I missed my small, black Moleskine diary a day or two later. But it was found, and a policewoman emailed to ask if it was mine. It arrived in a Fedex box six times its size within the week.

The diary would mean very little to anyone, I think. It contains addresses and phone numbers; lists of places to visit, things to buy, books to read, what to pack. It also includes recipes and descriptions of food I’ve eaten in Australia, Europe, Canada, and the US. It was these that I was particularly sorry to lose. In Kingston—a few days before arriving in Michigan—I’d written down the recipe for apple pie made by Elva McGaughey, my friend Jane’s mother, and an encyclopaedia of information on the home cooking of Ontario families.

That it was apple pie was significant. A week previously, Jane and Jennifer and Jennifer’s small son Stephen and I had picked apples in Québec’s Eastern Townships. We drove from Montréal, through bright green, softly rolling countryside. The sky was low and it drizzled. At the orchard, as Stephen snored gently in his sling, we filled deep paper bags with McIntosh and Cortland apples.

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Several people pointed out to me that the saying should be, really, ‘as Canadian as apple pie’ because—in their view—the best pie is made with Macs, a popular variety developed by John McIntosh, who discovered these tart, crunchy apples on his farm in Ontario in 1811. The Mac now constitutes 28% of the Canadian apple crop, and two thirds of all the apples grown in New England. It is—as I discovered—excellent for eating straight off the tree, and cooks down into a slightly sour, thick mush in pie.

Today, the Mac is one of only a handful of apples grown commercially. Industrialised food chains demand hardy, uniform, easily grown varieties which can withstand long periods of storage and transport without going off or developing bruises. Until comparatively recently, there were thousands of apple varieties to choose from. Writing about the United States, Rowan Jacobsen explains:

By the 1800s, America possessed more varieties of apples than any other country in the world, each adapted to the local climate and needs. Some came ripe in July, some in November. Some could last six months in the root cellar. Some were best for baking or sauce, and many were too tannic to eat fresh but made exceptional hard cider, the default buzz of agrarian America.

Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalogue of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904 by the pomologist WH Ragan, lists 17,000 apple names. I wonder if a small part of the enthusiasm fueling the current rediscovery of old varieties—even neglected apple trees will continue bearing fruit for decades—is due to the multiple meanings we’ve attached to apples over many, many centuries. They feature prominently in classical and Norse mythology, where they are symbols of fertility, love, youth, and immortality, but also of discord. They are fruit with doubled meanings. The apple in fairytales represents both the victory of the evil stepmother, as well as the beginning of our heroine’s salvation: her prince will kiss her out of the coma induced by the poisoned apple. In her novel The Biographer’s Tale, AS Byatt represents the two wives—one in England, the other Turkish—of the bigamist Victorian explorer Sir Elmer Bole with green and red apples. The fruit in the Garden of Eden—since at least the first century CE described as an apple—bestowed both knowledge and banishment.

If the name McIntosh seemed oddly familiar, then it may be because of a now-ubiquitous Californian brand: the Apple Macintosh, launched in 1984, was named ‘Apple’ by Steve Jobs—apparently then on a fruitarian diet—and after the Mac apple, a favourite of one of the company’s top engineers. It is appropriate that these sophisticated machines which offer access to so much knowledge—licit, illicit, open, secret—should be named for apples.

In Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin describes being woken early—at half past six—on winter mornings before school. His nursemaid would light the fire in a small stove by his bed:

When it was ready, she would put an apple in the little oven to bake. Before long, the grating of the burner door was outlined in a red flickering on the floor. And it seemed, to my weariness, that this image was enough for one day. It was always so at this hour; only the voice of my nursemaid disturbed the solemnity with which the winter morning used to give me up into the keeping of the things in my room. The shutters were not yet open as I slid aside the bolt of the oven door for the first time, to examine the apple cooking inside. Sometimes, its aroma would scarcely have changed. And then I would wait patiently until I thought I could detect the fine bubbly fragrance that came from a deeper and more secretive cell of the winter’s day than even the fragrance of the fir tree on Christmas eve. There lay the apple, the dark, warm fruit that—familiar and yet transformed, like a good friend back from a journey—now awaited me. It was the journey through the dark land of the oven’s heat, from which it had extracted the aromas of all the things the day held in store for me. So it was not surprising that, whenever I warmed my hands on its shining cheeks, I would always hesitate to bite in. I sensed that the fugitive knowledge conveyed in its smell could all too easily escape me on the way to my tongue. That knowledge which sometimes was so heartening that it stayed to comfort me on my trek to school.

The baked apple—Proust’s madeleine for twenty-first-century theorists—both opens up Benjamin’s memories of childhood during a period of acute homesickness, but, as a child, it contained the ‘fugitive knowledge’ of what lay ahead. It could fortify—sustain—him on the journey to school, between the dark warmth of home and the noise and brightness of school.

Notebooks contain the same fugitive knowledge: they are both guides for future action, and repositories of information, memory, fact gathered over time and place. They travel in pockets and backpacks and book bags from Drawn and Quarterly, accruing meaning, emotional and intellectual. They belong to time present, as well as time future and past.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 26.09.2012

How much food gets thrown away?

Visualising the relationship between food, water, and energy.

A food-growing workshop in George this weekend.

Is organic food worth the expense?

Emily Manktelow considers Emma Robertson’s Chocolate, Women, and Empire.

How banks cause hunger.

FoodPods.

Street food in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an.

The strange history of Kraft Dinner.

Food waste facts.

The legacy of Chicago’s Milk Ladies.

Americans’ relationship with sugar.

The Los Angeles Halaal butcher with a largely Latino clientele.

The enthusiasm for American fast food in the Middle East.

Lawrence Norfolk on food and eating in fiction.

A cultural history of the apple.

The Gladiator Diet. (Thanks, Mum!)

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah in India.

A comprehensive guide to coffee.

The shape of the glass helps to determine how you drink beer.

Grilled cheese.

246 Common in Tokyo.

Marmite – superfood?

Cake in the office.

A poem about potatoes.

If in doubt, make tea.

Oreos adapted for different countries.

Campbells issues Andy Warhol soup cans.

Food and restaurant signs in Greece.

The world’s first pizza museum.

The return of temperance drinks in the UK.

Taipei‘s food scene.

Solar cells powered by…spinach.

How test bicarbonate of soda and baking powder for freshness.

Ideas for using up stale bread.

The world’s shiniest fruit.

Photographs of sandwiches.

Eighteenth-century kitchen gadgets.

Food Links, 09.11.2011

Useless, but surprisingly joyous – a crochet apple jacket.

Emily Dickinson, cake enthusiast.

Marion Nestle on Denmark’s fat tax.

The amazing appetites of Ariel Sharon.

Anatomical kitchen gadgets.

A Q&A with Heston Blumenthal.

The perils of opening a coffee shop.

Please consider buying pork from these fine people.

A brief history of cannibalism.

More evidence that corn ethanol and speculation have caused the recent spike in food prices.

Nutrition, health, and height. (Thanks, Mum!)

The rise and fall of the potato.

Meet Tofu Boy.

Why is television so obsessed with baking?

‘Lewis and Clark ate dog so it’s not un-American.’ How useful. (Why we should eat lab-grown meat.)

How to cook in a tiny kitchen.

Reiventing waffles.

The best and worst places to find recipes on the internet.

Vintage British food – with photos.

A history of sweets.

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