Although the apple is an Old World fruit, heritage apples are an important part of American culinary traditions and history. In 1872, 1,100 uniquely American heritage apples were identified across the United States, including varieties like the Hyslop and Stayman. Today, only a handful of apples are sold in American supermarkets, and a few struggling orchards specialize in heritage apples in an attempt to preserve America's heritage. Slow Food International identifies 129 heritage apples in their Ark of Taste, fearing that many more have been lost forever, and is working hard to preserve them for future generations to experience.
The vast narrowing of available apple varieties owes a great deal to industrialized agriculture. Heritage apples ripen at different times, are notoriously fragile, and can be difficult to harvest. They do not lend themselves to large scale orchards, do not pack well, and come in strange, knobbly shapes which some consumers, conditioned to heavily hybridized apples, find distasteful. Commercial apple production is focused on creating consistent, easily packable apples, a far cry from the 18th century wanderings of Johnny Appleseed, the man responsible for the widespread dissemination of apples throughout the United States.
Almost every region of the United States can claim at least one unique apple, ranging from California's Sierra Beauty, a crisp, tart greenish apple first identified in the 1800s, to New York's classic Baldwin apple, a bright red winter variety which has contributed to the lineage of many other heritage apples. The Sierra Beauty was presumed to be lost until the 1980s, when is was discovered in active cultivation on the Gowan Family Farm in Philo, California. Many heritage apples have unusual and fanciful names hinting at exotic origins, while others unapologetically label themselves as superior, as is the case with the Westfield Seek-no-Further, a Massachusetts apple from the 1800s with a golden skin and a rich, complex flavor which lends itself well to desserts and baking.
Other exotic heritage apples include the Zabergau Reinette, a russet apple with a dull yellow skin and a potato like shape with a rich, nutty flavor. The Zabergau Reinette winters over very well, although at first glance it might be confused with a Yukon Gold potato. Thomas Jefferson was said to favor the Esopus Spitzenburg, another New York apple with red to scarlet skin, and probably related to the Baldwin. A hop to New Jersey introduces the consumer to the Maiden Blush, a yellowish apple with a rich red blush along one side, and a sweet, crisp, tender flesh that dries very well, or can be used in desserts and baking.
Classic American heritage apples include the Winesap, the Gravenstein, and the Hawkeye. Winesaps are red apples from Virginia with crisp, juicy, tart flesh, and are counted among the ancestors of many heritage apples. Gravenstein apples are originally from Germany, but were heavily cultivated in Sonoma after 1811, when they were originally brought to that region of California by Russian travelers. The streaky green apples are difficult to harvest, however, because of their short stems and brief July ripening period. The Hawkeye was first identified in Iowa, and is the original Red Delicious. The Hawkeye, however, is a far cry from the heavily hybridized, evenly red Red Delicious. It has a slightly sweet, slightly tart flavor, streaky red skin, and crisp flesh.
Fortunately, some American orchards are working to preserve heritage apples, and breeding more. Farmers' markets and specialty stores may stock heritage apples, and most orchards welcome visitors to see their trees and purchase goods directly at the farm. Apple lovers can help to preserve rare heritage apples by asking for them, sending a message to producers that heritage apples are in demand. In addition to preserving an important part of American history, you will also get to experience amazing and varied flavors, and support artisan farmers.