A few weeks ago John Bunker paid us a visit here in Portland. For those of you who don’t know John, it’s possible there’s not another person alive in Maine (or the Northeast US for that matter) who knows more about the history, uses and stories that live within the skins of heritage apple varieties.
On this particular evening, John lined up a charming parade of dramatically different apples on the podium of the Maine Historical Society and proceeded to regale us with the lore and legend of each. The apples were perfect props to keep the stories coming. Every variety, even those that seem absolutely lousy to eat out of hand (or “with a knife” as John indicates the English would phrase it), had a unique value to those who went to the trouble of keeping the variety alive over generations. Some really were only for baking, some for pies and, of course, some were prized for being able to store over winter and perhaps well into early spring. As John rightly points out, the people who began homesteading here hundreds of years ago accomplished some pretty amazing things based on their own and inherited skills, a serious amount of ingenuity and necessity; why in the world would they grow bad apples? They didn’t. The varieties they worked so hard to keep going were worth it to them. What can we learn from that?
Only a few decades ago, these unique apples were not only in danger of disappearing themselves, but the humans who knew anything about them were, well, hitting their own expiration dates. Thankfully John and some like-minded fruit explorers have been working diligently to not only rediscover the great old trees and varieties but to also collect the stories, the precious stories from Mainers who still remember “this old tree” or “that old tree” and who used the fruit and how.
Like windows on the past, the apple varieties lined up on the podium promised us clues to how things were done here once. Judging by the line of folks queued up to have their own mystery apples identified by John Bunker at the end of the evening, we may yet find some clues to the future of our food system in Maine in those selfsame apples.