How to Get Free Apples


For much of the 19th century, apple trees were so abundant that few considered it a crime for travelers to fill their pockets with ripe fruit to sate their hunger. But what might have been perfectly acceptable behavior in Kansas could get you in trouble in Oz.apple tree oz

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The Urban Orchard Movement


Over the last decade, an urban orchard movement has emerged in cities all across America.  In Los Angeles an organization called Fallen Fruit, taking advantage of an old law that declares fruit hanging from branches that overhang public sidewalks and roadways is free to the passerby, publishes maps of the greater Los Angeles area, directing gleaners to such fruit.  The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been planting fruit trees across the city since 2007, enhancing green spaces and food security for the city’s residents.  Similar organizations have emerged in other cities, including The Portland Fruit Tree Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, and The Boston Tree Party.  All of these organizations share an “apple idealism” which links them to the tradition of the nation’s moat legendary tree planter, John “Appleseed” Chapman.  Lisa Gross, the founder of the Boston Tree Party, is evangelical in her belief that apple trees can improve the experience of urban living.  “Imagine our cities filled with fruit trees,” Gross exclaims, “planted in civic spaces, at schools and hospitals, parks and businesses, houses of worship and more.  Imagine these communities coming together to care for these trees, to harvest and share their fruit.  Imagine these trees as tools of environmental restoration, helping to restore the health of our soil, to improve air quality and to absorb rainwater runoff. Imagine these trees as community focal points, opportunities for participation, learning and connection.  This is the vision of the Boston Tree Party.”   For a longer discussion of the place the urban orchard movement has in the larger history of the American orchard, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) from your local bookstore or favorite internet retailer.

An Unnatural History of Orange Juice


McPhee.oranges.1In 1965 John McPhee drove down to Florida during the harvest season, anticipating the opportunity to taste Florida’s famous orange juice at its freshest. When he stopped at a state welcome center promising free Florida orange juice, he was disappointed to be handed a small cup of juice reconstituted from frozen concentrate. Along the highway he noticed a sign for a restaurant which advertised orange juice, the word “fresh” still barely visible after being covered in white paint. And at a motel restaurant surrounded by orange groves, a waitress explained to him that all they offered was reconstituted juice. In 1965, nobody wanted fresh orange juice.  “Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,” the waitress explained. “Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.” McPhee wandered through the brave new world of hydroponically grown trees and frozen concentrated orange juice as an outsider—a man from another, much earlier time.  His description of the Florida citrus industry in an earlier stage of its embrace of industrialized processes is a fascinating read today, and it leaves the reader wondering if he had any idea what the next half century would bring. Could he have predicted that in 2013, most Americans would abandon the frozen concentrate, which seemed the height of modern back in the 1960s, and instead embrace something officially called “not-from-concentrate” because they believed–wrongly–it was somehow more authentic and natural, and, well, almost “fresh?”

Graphic from Business Week.

Graphic from Business Week.

Today the biggest American orange juice brands are subsidiaries of the two soda pop giants, Coke and Pepsi. A recent article in Business Week describes the very complex processes employed by soda giants to deliver consistent, “fresh-tasting” orange juice to grocery stores twelve months a year:  “The raw juice is . . . flash-pasteurized and piped to storage tanks as large as 2 million gallons each for up to eight months. Inside the tanks, the juice is slowly agitated at the bottom so it doesn’t settle. A nitrogen gas blanket at the top keeps out rot-inducing oxygen. Batches of juice from various crops and seasons are segregated based on features such as orange type, sweetness, and acidity. In-season juice is typically mixed with off-season juice.” Flavor essences are extracted from rind and pith, then eventually reintroduced into the juice. Coca Cola chemists employ an algorithm they call “Black Book” to ensure that the juices from these older and newer oranges, as well as the flavor essences, are mixed exactly right to achieve perfect consistency in taste.

squeezedThe juices created by these processes appear in the supermarket under brand names like Simply Orange, which touts itself as “honestly simple” and Tropicana Pure Premium, which declares itself to be “100% Pure and Natural.” To be fair, anyone who takes the time to visit Tropicana’s website can watch this video “Grove to Glass: How Tropicana Makes Juice,” and learn how complex the process actually is. But is it deceptive to declare that these juices are “honestly simple,” “fresh-tasting” and “100% Pure and Natural” on their labels? Alissa Hamilton, author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice argues that the typical consumer of orange juice believes they are getting something closer to fresh, when they plunk down extra coin for juices that tout themselves as “not from concentrate” and “never frozen.”

Perhaps Americans, caught between the conflicting desires for fresh and natural, on one hand, and convenience, consistency, and “permanent global summertime” on the fresh a perishableother are willingly bamboozled. Or perhaps the very meaning of terms like “natural” and “fresh” are in flux. In her fascinating book Fresh: A Perishable History Susan Freidberg contends that the very meaning of the word “fresh” has changed as we have developed new technologies to keep things from spoiling. Freidberg examines the changing meanings of “fresh” for a range of food products, from fruits and vegetables to milk, fish, and beef. “On the surface, few food qualities seem as unquestionably good as freshness. Dig a little deeper,” Freidberg warns, “and few qualities appear more complex and contested. At bottom, the history of freshness reveals much about our uneasy appetites for modern living, especially in the United States.”

The May Apple


A not quite ready may apple at the New Concord Reservoir woods.

A not quite ready may apple at the New Concord Reservoir woods.

At this time of year, in the woods where I walk my dogs every day, the forest floor is covered with may apples. They were even the first green shoot to rise up out of the blackened soil after a fire recently burned a section of these woods.  The may apple is one of the many wild fruits indigenous to North America, harvested and enjoyed by native peoples before the arrival of Europeans on these shores.  My friend Jason Mancini, senior researcher at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut, calls the may-apple “the sweetest fruit.” I have never been able to taste it myself, for as soon as the green fruit ripens to yellow in midsummer, the animals of my forest gobble them up. (If you decide to experiment on your own, know that the plant itself is poisonous, and the unripe fruit can have a laxative effect.) One early European explorer who tasted the fruit, considered a delicacy by Native Americans, declared that it “taste like apricocks.”

Many early engravings of North America depicted a land of extraordinary abundance.

Many early engravings of North America depicted a land of extraordinary abundance.

Early European explorers of North America paid close attention to the fruits of the land, and most did not hesitate to try the strange fruits they encountered, offering up descriptions of both their taste and their abundance. These early chroniclers sought to assess the suitability of these lands for European settlement, and they devoted much space to describing the soils, climate, and “air,” but also the abundance or scarcity of wild game, fish, birds, and wild fruits. By describing a landscape as “fruitful” colonial promoters were declaring that it promised abundance, health, and prosperity to those willing to colonize it. In contrast, any lands lacking in edible, delectable fruits were to be avoided. On a more practical level, an abundance of edible wild fruits, nuts, and berries (as well as fish and game) could be an important source of sustenance in the first years of any colony.

Colony promoters often tried to paint a picture of a New World Eden, where ripe fruits could be simply plucked from bushes and trees without labor. “This Countrey is a fruitfull soile, bearing many goodly and fruitfull Trees” declared George Percy, an early promoter of the Virginia colony. Percy described encountering “a little plat of ground full of fine and beautifull Strawberries, foure times bigger and better than ours in England” and an American wilderness as “all flowing over with faire flowers of sundry colours and kindes, as though it had beene in any Garden or Orchard in England.”

Thomas Harriot, holding an apple.

Thomas Harriot, holding an apple.

Thomas Harriot, another early English promoter of colonization visited Virginia in 1590 and found “the soils to be fatter” and “more plenty of their fruits, more abundance of their beastes.” Harriot wrongly identified persimmons as a type of Medlar, and described the prickly pear as “a kind of pleasant fruit.” New world grapes he deemed “a merchantable commodity” and declared the native wild strawberries “as good and as great as those we have in our English gardens.” Other fruits he identified as familiar were “mulberries, apple-crabs . . . and hurtleberries.” Almost two centuries later, William Bartram noted that North American strawberries were “a finer, [more] delicate fruit” than any grown in Europe, and another traveler described them as covering the ground “as with a red cloth.” The abundance of fruit suggested a life beyond mere survival, and one in which the promise of comfort, even luxury was possible.  Who could not read a description of abundant fields of strawberries and trees bending downward under the weight of fruit and not taste the sweet juice on their tongue, or feel it dripping over their lip and down their chin?

Roman politician Lucullus, gastronome of the first order.

Roman politician Lucullus, gastronome of the first order.

Reactions to the first tastes of New World fruits were mixed. Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano described the native crab apples of the Americas to be “apples worthy of Lucullus.” As Native Americans generally roasted them in the fire or marinated them in maple syrup to counter the crab apple’s bitterness, perhaps Verrazano’s first impression was the result of taste buds conditioned during a long sea journey by the consumption of dried up limes. In contrast, one Englishman warned others to be careful with the persimmon, for “if it be not ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awry with much torment.”

While adventurous explorers and promoters often provided positive reports of native fruits, other European observers were less enthusiastic about New World varieties. Historian Alfred Crosby has pointed out that “Europeans would come to the New World in great numbers only if a dependable supply [of] familiar European food was available.” Cultural prejudices which Europeans brought with them to the Americas made many at first reluctant to adopt Native American foods, and typically did so only out of necessity. English settlers put aside their initial prejudice against Indian maize, for example, only after confronting the reality that it was much easier to plant and tend in unbroken soils than English wheat and barley.

Father Paul Le Jeune

Father Paul Le Jeune

Upon his arrival in Quebec in 1634, Jesuit Father Paul LeJeune declared that “all the fruits they have (except strawberries and raspberries, which they have in abundance) are not worth one single species of the most ordinary fruits of Europe,” and promptly set out several rows of Old World apples and peaches to remedy the perceived deficiency. As waves of Europeans migrated to North America and established permanent colonies, they brought the fruits of their home with them.  Some, like the Old World apple and peach thrived in the new environment, and some Native American tribes began to cultivate them and incorporate them into their diet. At the same time, Europeans grew to value many of North America’s indigenous fruit, including the pumpkin, blueberries and indigenous strawberries.  But the fruits of the wild may apple, which still fill the forest floors of much of eastern North America, has mostly been left for other animals to enjoy.

May Apples were the first plants to sprout from the forest floor after a recent fire.

May Apples were the first plants to sprout from the forest floor after a recent fire.