DG MARTIN COLUMN: Time for apples

D.G. Martin

The Lincoln County Apple Festival is set for Lincolnton on Oct. 21. Since 1972 this vibrant community event has entertained locals and visitors with varied activities and reminded us how important apples have been to us. This year’s festival will, according to its promoters, feature “five local apple growers, a farmer’s market, local talent on two stages, foods that include whole apple pies, kid’s activities, and more than 250 vendors with crafts and exhibits to delight all ages.”

Coincidentally, UNC Press has just released a new book, “Wild, Tamed, Lost, Revived: The Surprising Story of Apples in the South” by Diane Flynt. It relates and celebrates the close relationship between apples and white, Black, and Native Americans over centuries of time.

Flynt loves apples, but not the modern-day varieties like Golden Delicious and Granny Smith and more recent Sugar-Bee and SweeTango. In the book’s preface, she writes these “apples tell the same tired story. Every year the same colors, the tidy piles of groomed fruit taste only sweet, juicy, and crisp. Today’s apples tell a buffed and polished tale.”

Instead, she says, there is a “deeper story than yellow, red, green, and sweet.” She guides her readers to a wider variety of “knobby brown orbs.” She assures that, behind each orb “lies a person, culture, and history. And nowhere is this history more interesting than in the South.”

Her book, she says, tells the story of southern apples promises that surprises will fill “every page of the southern apple tale.”

Into her history of southern apple growing and cider making she weaves her own story.

The apple has a long history. Many of us believe that an apple was the forbidden fruit from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” that tempted Eve in the Bible’s Garden of Eden.

Flynt takes the apple’s history back more than 100 million years ago to an early form of apples. Then about 10 million years ago precursors of today’s southern apples developed in Central Asia from where, with the help of the Persians and Romans, they made their way to Britain.

From there the fruit made its way to America and by 1615 to Jamestown in Virginia.

Continuing Flynt’s personal history with the apple, she moved from planting and growing to become an expert cider maker. She writes that while cider is easy to make, it is hard to make well. Flynt became a master of the details of what it takes to make good cider and how she made her Foggy Ridge Cider business successful and widely admired.

She confesses that she had romanticized apple growing and cidermaking.

She felt the magic when she made adjustments to the cider mix, noting that “Adding just a few parts of Hewe’s Crab transformed a forgettable cider into a beverage that tasted like a fall orchard smells.”

But the demands of a successful business left her unsatisfied. “Often I felt on the tedium of one phone call after another. My days seemed bereft of creativity, lacking a sense of possibility.”

Ultimately, she closed her cidery to turn her attention to growing apples for other cider makers, learning more about apples, and writing this book.

For instance, as she explains, controlled atmosphere (CA) storage has changed the southern apple business. By reducing the oxygen level in storage facilities and replacing it with nitrogen, you inhibit the natural ripening process. Thus, the ripening of apples could be delayed for as long as a year. So there is no longer a need to stage production of different seasonable varieties.

“If consumers wanted Golden Delicious in May, no problem. Just pull that variety out of CA storage and send it to the market.”

It is hard for a reader to know whether, notwithstanding the changes in apple farming, she still loves the apples as much as she did when she began her quest.

I think she does. I hope she does.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”