reviewed by Lindsey Grutchfield
In the ages since its origins among the forests of Kazakhstan, the humble apple has become a nearly universal symbol of autumn—and nowhere more so than in the United States, where shiny red apples are as ingrained in the culture as baseball—the saying “as American as apple pie,” that is, exists for a reason. That said, the apple market in the United States as elsewhere exhibits a remarkable lack of diversity, with Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and a few other varieties dominating the supermarket shelves. As Rowan Jacobsen points out in his latest book, Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders, this is something of a shame. The world of apples is remarkably diverse, running the gamut from the tiny Pitmaston Pineapple to that honey-scented green giant, Mutsu. And these niche varieties have been undergoing a resurgence of popularity in recent years, as local and unusual foods have captured center stage among gastronomes.
Though he deals with trendy food, Jacobsen does an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls of food snobbery, giving equal billing to culinary superstars and workhorses alike, in what is essentially a catalogue of apples. Because of both this encyclopedic content and its clean, attractive format, one might dismiss Apples of Uncommon Character as something for the coffee table. When actually read, however, the book reveals its real worth. Rich description and vivid detail bring to life not only the appearance, taste and texture of the fruit, but lovely imagery of the orchards, backyards and compost heaps where the varieties were first discovered. Fleshed out with back stories, the humble apple rises from a mere fruit to a cause for some excitement.
On their own, apples hold little drama to hold a reader’s attention. Such being the case, it is fortunate that Jacobsen possesses a talent for bringing stories about fruit to life. In the hands of a lesser author, Apples of Uncommon Character would be at best an elegant coffee table book, at worst a dry accounting of obscure apple varieties. In Jacobsen’s hands, however, the book manages to dodge both those fates, becoming something as beautiful to read as it is to look it, and as entertaining as it is informative.