The Northern Spy and Other Edible Antiques

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.

A Rhode Island Greening is about as common in the contemporary American kitchen as a butter churn. It's as likely to be used as a woodburning cookstove or an icebox. Few of them have ever been microwaved.

The Northern Spy, once a standby at neighborhood grocers, is rarely seen in today's supermarkets. It's gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage and the stagecoach. Just try to find one.

The Greening and the Spy are both apples, two of the finest-tasting varieties ever to touch the American palate. But today they are "antiques," each more than a century old. Each has been replaced by varieties of apple better suited to the mass-production technologies of the modern era: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith.

During the mid-1800s nearly 300 varieties of apples were being propagated in the United States, and more than a thousand had been named. Each had its own special coloring and distinctive flavor: tart green ones best for cooking, sweet and juicy red ones for fresh eating, early season yellow ones for crushing into sauces or cider.

A hundred years later, fewer than 150 varieties of apple were still being cultivated by nurseries, and those mostly in limited quantities. Just five apple varieties accounted for 75 percent of commercial apple production and most Americans didn't know that other varieties even existed.

The Northern Spy, for instance, was dubbed "the best apple ever grown in the United States" by apple connoisseur Fred Lape, but few folks recognize the name or remember that it was once among the most popular varieties.

The Spy's history dates back to 1800. The first tree of its kind sprouted as an orphan seedling in an orchard in East Bloomfield, New York. It died young without bearing fruit, but not before several sprouts had been cut
from its base and replanted. Just nine of those sprouts survived to bear fruit, but oh, what a fruit was borne!

Larger than most apples, and colored with great stripes of yellow and red like an October sunset, the Spy became a mid-19th century favorite on farms and orchards.

The Rhode Island Greening is even older. At a time when Isaac Newton was still around to explain why apples fall from trees, the first of its kind grew from seed at a place called Green's End in Rhode Island. It was here that Mr. Green, a tavern keeper and amateur orchardist, discovered the fruit and offered it to his customers. The distinctive looking apple -- grass-green with a light cinnamon blush -- drew raves, and Green's customers soon returned asking for grafting scions and buds.
So many buds and scions were cut from Green's tree that it died a few years later, but not before its branches had spread across New England and its fruit was filling pies and sauces and ciders throughout the region.
Today a few Greenings are grown commercially for sauces and frozen apple slices, and some old Spys still linger in back-yard orchards. But the Spys, in particular, are as rare as Liberty dimes and hand-crafted furniture. The reasons for their demise are clear. First, the Spy is very slow to come into bearing. Its first fruit may take 14 years to appear.

Who will wait that long for an apple?
Then, once it does start to bear fruit, the Spy tree often decides to do so only every other year, or biennially, if that's not enough to discourage growers, the apple is also a large and difficult shape for picking and packing, and it bruises easily.
Most antique apples have similar traits that discourage commercial development. Some don't keep well; others have skins too tough or flesh too soft, or lack the rich red color the public expects in an apple.

By fate or by fortune, some 200 antique apple varieties have survived, blossoming in a handful of preservation orchards, commercial nurseries, and private collections. Their branches continue to offer scions and buds for propagation, their great variety of colors and sizes can still be seen, and the taste of their fruit may yet be savored.

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