Last week I was loitering in our local town historian’s office and I came upon a book titled the “Apples of New York”. The book was published in1905. As I flipped through the pages I came across a reference to the Somerset Apple. For those who don’t know it, western New York has been the fruit belt of New York for many years. In fact it still is home to acres of fruit farms and fruit processing plants. The Somerset apple is described as “golden to yellowish white…with tender juicy white flesh and rich aromatic flavor”. This delicious sounding specimen unfortunately is no where to be found, not even in Somerset New York, the home town of my grandparents and several cousins. In fact, New York state now boasts of producing 10 varieties of apples, a very far cry from the 900 varieties listed in the dusty 1905 Apples of New York report. So where did all the apples go?
Over the years since 1905 , even since the 1950’s our choices of fruit and vegetable varieties has been rapidly declining thanks to the mechanization of large farms and orchards. Farmers and agriculturists have picked the hardiest , highest yielding specimens to grow leaving the other equally delicious and nutritious varieties to literally die on the vine ( or branch for apples).
Fortunately there has been a growing interest in the last few years, spurred on by the Slow Food Movement , to bring back the rich variety of old and local plant foods. You don’t have to be gardener to have noticed the term “heritage” or “heirloom” popping up on menus and in farm markets. There is no legal definition for these terms but it is generally agreed that a vegetable or fruit that is labeled heritage is one that is grown from seeds that ” pre-dates the beginning of industrialized agriculture, approximately in 1945″.* There are advantages to heritage varieties as they were cultivated to meet the demands of the particular locale where they were grown. Over time the vegetable or fruit would develop to meet the environmental challenges be it a wet rainy northwest or a dry dusty Missouri day. Similar to grapes from different wine regions, fruits and vegetables once had distinctive regional tastes and textures.
I find it very interesting that this decline in the variety of fruit and vegetable strains has mirrored the decline in the nutritional health of Americans. One of the many mantras of dietitians and nutritionists is to pursue a varied diet for the best health. Wouldn’t it follow that having a bigger , more varied gene pool of fruits and vegetables improve the health of people and the environment?
Suffice to say this could be a whole book on the importance of bringing back old strains and establishing new varieties of all food plants from corn to apples. You will be thankful that I won’t go there today but what I do encourage is for you to choose heirloom varieties whenever possible and if you are a gardener to seek out the plants and seeds from heritage crops that grew in your part of the world and add them to your garden.
Eat Well, Live Well, Have Fun !