From Johnny Appleseed to mom's proverbial apple pie, apples are an American icon.
Yet in some ways, it seems that Americans hate apples, or at least their diversity. Consider that historically, this country has grown some 10,000 named apple varieties ... but that no more than 300 are still cultivated in any quantity. And a mere dozen strains of Malus domestica -- your red and golden delicious, your McIntosh -- garner almost all the sales.
What have you people got against apples?
In fairness, many vanished varieties were bred for specific purposes now little sought, like fermenting for cider, notes Penn State horticulture professor Rob Crassweller. And some varieties are too difficult to grow or store for mass markets.
Yet as with heirloom tomatoes, heritage apples have a cult following. This fall, you can partake of specialty apples at your neighborhood farmers' market -- or at Pittsburgh's fifth annual Apple Festival.
The fest (www.slowfoodpgh.com) begins Mon., Oct. 4, with a pie-crust workshop on the South Side. And it culminates Oct. 23 at Highland Park's Union Project, where a pie contest and more join a line-up of about a dozen area farms selling cider and raw apples.
Last year, fest founder Donald Gibbon displayed his commitment to apple diversity, supplementing standbys like Staymans and Empires with rarities like Connell Red, Black Amish, Opalescent and Monroe (the latter three grown at Lyle Johnston's Apple Castle, near New Wilmington).
Now, with help from real-food advocates Slow Food USA, Gibbon is going further. In November, he'll take delivery of 10 Black Amish cuttings from Big Horse Creek Farm, an off-the-grid organic orchard and nursery in North Carolina that specializes in heritage varieties.
Gibbon hasn't decided who'll get the trees that produce fruit he describes as dark red, large, round and firm, "not too tart" and good raw or in baking. But the reintroduction of this long-absent variety (popularized in Pennsylvania in the 1800s) justifies itself.
"The whole point is to offer people in their lives a broader spectrum of the pleasure of using apples," says Gibbon.
That's the mission at Big Horse, where Ron and Suzanne Joyner grow Disharoon, Royal Limbertwig, Westfield Seek-No-Further -- some 375 varieties, some limited to a single grafted limb.
The apples are a library of genetic diversity as well as a cornucopia of tastes.
"We view them as our legacy," says Ron Joyner. "This is what we're going to leave behind."