Not many of us, not even the most ardent foodies, think of the crab apple as a fruit worth eating, much less extolling, but Henry David Thoreau saw something like the American pioneer spirit in this hard, gnarled, sour hunk of fruit. In his essay “Wild Apples,” he celebrates the apple because it “emulates man’s independence and enterprise.” Like America’s first settlers, he goes on, “it has migrated to this New World, and is even, here and there, making its way amid the aboriginal trees.” He claims that “[e]ven the sourest and crabbedest apple, growing in the most unfavorable position, suggests such thoughts as these, it is so noble a fruit.”
William Kerrigan quotes from this passage at the start of his fascinating book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) and he shows us the man behind the myth, a man very different from the one we might expect, but a man who nonetheless seems like the real-world embodiment of Thoreau’s thoughts on the apple. Born in 1774, John Chapman is the planter who would eventually become Johnny Appleseed. Kerrigan not only tells us the story of his life and afterlife, but also the story of the American apple, which begins, surprisingly enough, in Kazakhstan and goes on to our moment of genetically modified fruits and heritage varietals.
At the center of this story, Kerrigan shows us the journey of an unusual American for his time and then the creation of an unusual—and perhaps timeless—American myth. (Here, by the way, is a link to Kerrigan’s blog.)