Review of Old Southern Apples
The Arkansas Black is a real alligator horse of an apple. Bite into one fresh off the tree, and it will bite right back. To describe its flesh as “firm” doesn’t adequately describe the fight in this apple. Its deep red blush makes it perhaps the most beautiful apple God ever created. And its rebel persistence serves it well. In early March, when those grocery store apples pulled from their winter sleep in a nitrogen-infused, controlled atmosphere storage facility taste bland and mealy, an Arkansas Black plucked from the cellar is a delight to eat, its sharp acidity and rocky firmness having mellowed with age.
Many Americans associate the peach with the South, and the apple with the North. But the South has a long and proud tradition of producing distinctive apple varieties. No man has done more to preserve the southern apple tradition than Creighton Lee Calhoun, who has spent decades crossing southern hill country seeking out the last specimens of old local varieties.
The result of those efforts is his encyclopedic work Old Southern Apples. First published in 1996, the book quickly sold out, and used copies fetched upwards of $200 on the secondary market before Calhoun published a revised and expanded edition in 2011. The book begins with a nice history of the apple in the South, and is followed by a section on Southern varieties that are still available, and finally a section of extinct varieties. In the middle of this handsome book are 123 beautifully reproduced full color plates from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, housed in the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. Old Southern Apples was an indispensable reference guide for me while researching Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard. Anyone interested in apples, not just southerners, will find it chock full of valuable information, as many of the apples listed were also grown in other regions of the country. It is also a delightful book to browse, and each return visit to the book rewards the reader with fascinating new information about Rusty Coats, Pippins, Limbertwigs, and other forgotten delights from the golden age of the American apple. Peruse it with a local apple in your hand. Just be careful to keep the juice from dripping on the beautiful watercolor plates.
For more about Calhoun, you can check out this three part youtube interview with the author: