There’s nothing more American than apple pie—or is there? We might prescribe an apple a day and call our largest city the Big Apple, but this legendary fruit originally hails from the mountains of Kazakhstan. This episode, Michael Pollan (something of a legend himself) tells us how apples become so important on the American frontier, and what cider (the alcoholic kind) had to do with it. We talk to apple fan Amy Traverso and apple detective Dan Bussey to figure out how many thousands of apple varieties used to grow in America, and why are there only a handful—including the notorious Red Delicious, which, while red, is far from delicious—in supermarkets today? All that, plus we get out in the orchard with Soham Bhatt to learn about the cider renaissance that's sweeping the nation.
And if that weren't enough, cider historians Maria Kennedy and James Crowden help us debunk a cherished French libationary legend (sorry, Dom Perignon), and discover just who Johnny Appleseed really was. (Hint: he’s a lot gnarlier than the Disney character you might have imagined!) We also tackle the most important question of all: Can Cynthia convert Nicky into a cider lover?
For the apple-curious among you, here’s a list of the all the varieties we mention in the episode: Roxbury Russet, Redfield, Reine des Pommes, Blue Pearmain, Black Amish, D'Arcy Spice, Winter Banana, Ananas Reinette, Black Gilliflower, Twenty-Ounce Pippin, Westfield Seek No Further, Peach of Kentucky, Norton's Mellow, Moyer's Prize, Ladies' Favorite of Tennessee, Bread and Cheese, Cornell's Save Well, the Paradise Winter, Red Delicious (originally named Delicious, which in turn was originally known as Hawkeye), Granny Smith, Macintosh, Cosmic Crisp, and, finally, Galactic Crisp.
Soham Bhatt is the co-founder of Artifact Cider and a Gastropod fan who campaigned for an apples and cider episode last year; this year he sent a follow-up email, suggesting that apple orchards are the perfect locale for a distanced outdoor interview during the COVID era—and we agreed! He’s a biotech engineer-turned-cidermaker, and this is The New York Times article he says first piqued his curiosity in cider. Artifact has a variety of ciders available for purchase; two of Cynthia's favorites (of the ones available so far!) are Slow Down and Wolf at the Door.
Michael Pollan is a journalist, author, and professor of journalism at UC Berkeley. He’s also Gastropod's fairy godfather (or, as he puts it, "inadvertent midwife"), in his role as founder of the UC Berkeley - 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship, where Cynthia and Nicky first met and, thus, where the seeds of what became Gastropod were planted. Michael is the author of many New York Times bestselling books, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma (and, of course The Botany of Desire), and several of his books have been adapted into television documentaries.
Amy Traverso is the senior food editor at Yankee Magazine and co-host of public television's “Weekends with Yankee.” She grew up picking apples in northern Connecticut, inspiring a lifelong love of apples and her award-winning cookbook, The Apple Lover's Cookbook.
Maria Kennedy is a folklorist at Rutgers University and administrative director of the New Jersey Folk Festival. Her dissertation, “Finding Lost Fruit: The Cider Poetic, Orchard Conservation, and Craft Cider Making in Britain,” examines the interplay of cultural heritage and environmental conservation in rural Britain. Maria blogs about all things cider at “Cider with Maria.”
Dan Bussey and The Illustrated History of Apples in North America
Dan Bussey is the former orchard manager at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, as well as an apple historian who has been cataloging apple varieties for over thirty years. The fruit of his labors is a lavishly-illustrated seven-volume compendium titled The Illustrated History of Apples in North America.
James Crowden is an author and poet who lives in Somerset, England. He spent twenty years as a shepherd, cidermaker, and forester and is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In addition to Ciderland, James also wrote Cider: The Forgotten Miracle.
If you're now jonesing for hard-to-find apple varieties and don't have an orchard with heritage varieties nearby, we ordered ours from Scott Farm in Vermont. They're one of the preeminent New England apple orchards, growing about 130 heritage varieties, and they ship nearly everywhere in the country. We particularly loved the D'Arcy Spice, and if you pick up the Ananas Reinette and the Winter Banana you, too, can test your family/COVID-podmates and see if they do as well as Nicky's husband Geoff did!