The first time I visited New England, my family came to see cousins who had moved to Montpelier, Vt. It was early October, and on one of the first days of our trip we headed to the farmers’ market in the middle of town.
Each farm stand held wooden crates overflowing with the most amazing variety of apples I had ever seen, in many shades of red, brown, yellow and orange, and in all shapes and sizes. These were not the Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious and Granny Smiths I was used to eating at home — there were Beacons, Idareds, Jonagolds, Gravensteins and more. We filled paper bags with as many varieties as we could carry and brought them back to my cousin’s house to cut up and taste. Some were sweet, some were tart, some mushy, some crunchy — so many flavors and textures I’d never experienced before. It’s the first time I remember being really excited by the world of food and what it had to offer.
During October, Island Grown Harvest of the Month celebrates the mighty apple. Island Grown Schools educators at schools across the Island, from preschool through high school, will introduce students to the wondrous and delicious variety in the apple world through taste tests in classrooms and cafeterias. They will also lead apple-based lessons about biodiversity, industrial agriculture and the importance of the food choices we make for our health and the environment.
Apples are one of America’s favorite fruits and are full of fiber and vitamin C. Unfortunately, the way we eat them and how we grow them can be problematic. The average American eats over 50 pounds of apples every year, but almost two-thirds of the apples we consume are processed into juice, apple desserts or applesauce. When we process apples, some of their health benefits are lost.
Today most of the apples we eat come from just five parent apple varieties: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, McIntosh and Cox’s Orange Pippin. A hundred years ago, there were thousands of varieties of apples being grown, but as with so many of the crops in our industrial agricultural system, apple crop diversity is shrinking, as commercial orchardists grow huge tracts of the same few familiar varieties that we’re used to seeing on grocery store shelves.
As we lose apple biodiversity, not only we do lose some of the wonderful flavors and textures in heritage apple varieties, but the crops also lose resiliency and become more susceptible to pests and disease. Commercial apples require more pesticides than most other crops, with an average of twelve chemical sprayings each season.
In history classes at the regional high school, IGS teaches about the hazards of the loss of crop biodiversity. One famous example of course is the blight that wiped out the potato crop during the Irish potato famine of 1845, which led to the death of a million people in Ireland and the emigration of a million more. When an agricultural system relies on a few varieties of a few crops, the crops — and the humans who depend on them — can be devastated in a short period of time.
We can do our part to safeguard apple biodiversity by growing trees ourselves, and by identifying and protecting (and eating!) the wild and heritage varieties that grow around us. Last spring, students at the Edgartown School planted the first two apple trees in what will become a seven-tree orchard attached to their school garden. Islanders with trees of unknown origins in their yards now call the Island Grown Gleaning volunteers to come harvest the bounty they aren’t able to pick themselves, which then get turned into cider and applesauce at Island schools, or are brought into classrooms for students to taste.
This month, celebrate the start of fall and the second month of the Island Grown Harvest of the Month program by exploring the bounty of the apple, available to all of us lucky enough to call New England home.
Visit the grocery stores and farm stands that offer locally and regionally-grown apples, and try taste tests at home. Pay attention to apple trees in backyards and along roadsides, and see what varieties you can discover right here on the Island. Or check out the lunch menu at your local school — all the Island K through 12 schools will be offering local or regional apples on their menus at different points in the month. And try cooking with apples in new ways; check out our featured recipe of the month, Chris Fischer’s baked apple recipe, or any of the other delicious recipes contributed by local chefs on our web page (islandgrown.org/schools/harvestofthemonth).
Noli Taylor is executive director of Island Grown Schools, a program of the Island Grown Initiative. This column will appear monthly in the Gazette throughout the duration of the Harvest of the Month program. For more information, go to islandgrown.org/schools.
5 apples, peeled and cut into quarter-inch wedges
Pinch of salt
Juice from half a lemon
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 stick unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the apple slices, salt, lemon juice and cinnamon in a large bowl and toss to coat the apples well. Melt butter in a nonstick or cast-iron pan over medium heat and arrange the apple slices however artfully you like around the bottom of the pan. If you have too many apple slices set them aside for a snack. Sauté the apples for two minutes on the stovetop before placing in the oven for 20 minutes to soften and cook. Serve right out of the pan for a healthy dessert
— Recipe by Chris Fischer