Fruit with a Checkered Past

The poor apple. It’s had a bad rap since just about forever. Sure, nowadays its image has been plastered over to create a wholesome veneer, but that can’t fully erase centuries of bad PR. For over a millennium the apple has been synonymous with sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition. No one knows exactly why. Genesis doesn’t specify what the “forbidden fruit” actually was, in fact there are those who to this day argue that the forbidden fruit was a fig. So why the bad rap, historically speaking? Perhaps because the Latin word for apple, malus, is strikingly similar to the Latin word for “evil”, malum.

Which is not to say that ancient peoples had any particular problem with the apple. Human beings from Khazakstan (where the apple is thought to have originated) to Europe, Japan and all other points along the Silk Road have enjoyed apples for thousands of years. I daresay it was when the apple reached North America that the bad press really started.

Ever wonder why the apple is practically synonymous with America? It’s because wherever North American settlers went on the continent, assuming the climate was amenable, apples followed. Virtually every frontier homestead had an apple orchard on it. Because the settlers couldn’t get enough of apple pie? Er, no…not exactly. What settlers wanted most from apple trees was not their fruit, but their juice. Frontier life, you see, offered very few beverage options. Aside from water there was…there was, um…well, nothing. Apple juice offered welcome relief from a.) the sameness, but also b.) the health issues that frequently arose from tainted river or pond water.

Extremely wholesome, yes? Except that when apple juice is left sitting around for a while it tends to ferment into hard cider, which (depending on how enterprising a person you were) could then be further distilled into apple whiskey or “applejack”.

What harm is there in having a little hair of the dog lying around the farm? Plenty if you were a woman living with a drunken husband, or worse, his drunken children. For it was common in frontier days for even very young children to drink alcohol (hard cider or beer in grain-producing regions, but not infrequently, whiskey). It was a practice that appalled city folk who visited rural communities in the 19th Century. So its not terribly surprising that as frontier towns got more civilized, temperance movements began to spring up. Their members were mostly female, and their number one target was — you guessed it — the apple. In fact the symbol of one of the most successful temperance organizations, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was a hatchet striking the trunk of an apple tree.

It wasn’t until the very early 1900’s — when in desperation, American apple growers hired a New York advertising agency — that the apple’s image changed. The ad geniuses came up with a little slogan that went: “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Kinda catchy, no?

14 thoughts on “Fruit with a Checkered Past”

  1. Apples propagated from seed are going to only be good for cider; all eating apples are cloned, they don’t breed true.

  2. I can’t imagine anything that has done more to damage the apples reputation as much as the “red delicious”. Grown because it is a good keeper, they usually have a green layer just under the skin and a near cardboard flavor misnamed from every aspect.

    Fortunately, several Universities (most notably Minnesota) are breeding new, actually delicious apples for eating and cooking.

    1. The red delicious (terrible name) also has the most bitter peel, but even peeled they taste of nothing much. I’ve noticed that I seldom see them in groceries anymore, but years ago they were practically all you could buy.

      1. So true. Goldens are still around, but red delicious are mostly gone as far as I can tell.

  3. I’d heard one theory that the “forbidden fruit” refers to pomegranates. But that might be a conflation with the Persephone myth. . .

    1. I’ve heard something similar, Katherine. I should look it up!


      – Joe

  4. You didn’t mention poison ivy’s affinity for apple trees. I’m sure it has something to do with that bad rap as I can remember going to the pick-your-own orchards as a kid and inevitably coming home with a sick belly from overindulging as we picked and a world-class case of poison ivy Every. Single. Year.

    1. Great place. Haven’t been there in years, but a great place!

      Thanks for the memories, Thames!

      – Joe

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