In this week’s foreigner’s tirade, I will, let’s be honest, “trash-talk” what has been America’s sweetheart for generations: the apple. I enjoy eating apples as much as, well, any other apple lover. I will also admit that the American cultural focus on apples has brought great things to my life: I discovered apple crumble (and apple pie that actually tastes good), apple fritters, apple-cinnamon donuts, cider that is actually apple juice with pulp, cider that comes in craft beer bottles and so on. Still, American apple culture goes far beyond just the convenience and locality of the fruit or even just the taste of it. It is an obsession with apple products and apple-centered activities.
A year ago I mentioned to my mother that a couple of friends were taking me apple picking — an essential American cultural experience. I then had to spend the next 40 minutes trying to explain to my mother the appeal of the activity. At first, she didn’t understand the function of the location: was this an actual apple orchard? If so, wouldn’t visitors and untrained apple-pickers just be a nuisance? How was this comparable to a wine vineyard tour? But at the end of things, she just couldn’t understand the popularity of the activity. “Why would you pay additional money to pick your own apples?” she argued. The apples were not special in any kind of way. If you think about it, the economic model behind apple picking is absolutely genius — someone else is paying both for the product of your labor as well as the ability to “test out,” or experience, your form of labor.
In actuality, apples are neither native nor convenient. Apples originated in Kazakhstan, and while it is true that the weather of the continental United States, particularly that of New England, favors them well, the amount of effort that our apple crops require makes that argument null. Apples grown from seeds produce crops that can be different in taste and appearance from the apple it came from. The current lack of genetic variety in apples due to species control makes apples incredibly weak crops, requiring heavy amounts of pesticides. Contemporary apples’ grandparents were more comparable to what we today call crab apples — smaller and bitter. Apples had little use beyond the production of cider in colonial and settler America — that means no apple pie.
Perhaps apple picking as a phenomenon is an indicator of urban America’s relationship with nature, farming and food. There is a high disconnect between the production of food and its consumption — both psychologically and economically. Economically, processed foods are less expensive, and unprocessed or organic foods are considered options for the elite. Psychologically, many Americans are unaware of the processes and realities of labor that are necessitated by our levels of consumption. The ethos of apples as wholesome nationalism and the nostalgia of apple picking are manufactured. Let’s be real, apple picking at an apple orchard is in no way a realistic representation of the type of work that cultivating apples actually is.