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First Fruits

Autumn in Minnesota brings Honeycrisps and Haralsons, pies and cider, and trips to pick-your-own apple orchards. But the season’s bounty is no accident. The state’s apples are the result of care, cultivation, and good breeding.

First Fruits
Photo by Terry Brennan

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Fall has always been apple-picking time in the Midwest. I grew up on a farm half a mile from a railroad track. In late September, my family and I gathered basketfuls of apples picked from two trees that grew in the brambly land between the tracks and our property. The apple trees just seemed to happen, like the cockleburs and milkweeds that invaded the cornfields.

Those were the years when vagabonds rode the freight trains and, according to my father, sometimes jumped off and camped along the railroad track on the edge of our farm. “Hobos probably planted these apple trees,” he said. “They were always leaving something behind.”

The trees were not exactly prizewinners. With their crooked and uneven branches twisting in every direction, they looked ready for an Intensive Care Unit. I don’t know what kind they were, and the apples looked as if they weren’t sure either: The fruit ripened in various shades of red and yellow that suggested edibility, but looks were deceiving. The apples were small, misshapen, and often marred by bird-pecking scars and wormholes.

The trees put up a scratchy fight when I climbed them to pluck the pathetic fruit they produced. Sometimes I took a bite from one. The flesh made my tongue feel as if I’d just sprinkled powdered alum on it. The peelings were so hard and the apples so heavy that they would have made handy weapons to fend off neighborhood bullies. We’d go back to the farmhouse with bushels of these little knobby things. In the kitchen, my mother managed to overwhelm their bitter flavor with enough sugar that her apple pies tasted just fine, though a scoop of ice cream on top didn’t hurt.

I’m not the first person to have tasted an apple that is less than delectable, and I’m sure I’m not the last. Some 8,000 different varieties of apples are grown in the world today, but only a fraction of those are flavorful and pretty enough to make it to fruit stands. American grocers mostly carry varieties championed by states like Washington, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but it seems every state in the union takes some pride in its apples (even Alaska has an entry, the Siberian crab apple). At the market, I generally reach for Minnesota’s McIntoshs or Honeycrisps, though I’d still take a second look at a display that had some less-familiar options—like Live Music, Lady in the Snow, or Scarlet O’Hara.

Apples have had a rocky history in Minnesota. The famous 19th-century editor and politician Horace Greeley, perhaps best remembered for the quotation “Go West, young man. Go West and grow up with the country,” is reported to have warned an audience in 1860 not to bother going to Minnesota because it was impossible to grow apples there. This disparaging remark was not far from the truth. Minnesota climate and soil were a hard sell. Early settlers had failed dismally at producing apples that could survive our climate and produce a product worth eating.

All that changed, however, when the apple-loving and apple-breeding Peter Gideon arrived on the scene. On his property near Excelsior, Gideon tested thousands of seedlings. By 1868, he had come up with the mother of all Minnesota commercial-quality apples, the Wealthy. The name actually has a sweet history: When 17-year-old Wealthy Hull moved to Minnesota to teach in the county schools, she became the apple of Gideon’s eye. He married her, had three children with her, and when he finally produced the delectable apple that is still around today, he gave it her name. After her death in 1889, Wealthy was buried along Lake Minnetonka near Excelsior, not far from the very spot where the fruit named in her honor was created.

Delicious and beautiful apples don’t just happen. They have pedigrees. They’ve been to good boarding schools. They are the result of good breeding. Minnesota’s apples are as much the culmination of careful planning as a sturdy and attractive building, and you don’t take a design from a tropical climate and transplant it with thatched roof and pole construction onto the frost-heaving Minnesota prairie. The dappled Haralson, with its characteristic spots, is a good example. The Minnesota Horticulture Research Center introduced it in 1922 and named it after the superintendent of the University of Minnesota’s Fruit Breeding Farm, Charles Haralson. DNA testing has shown that Gideon’s Wealthy is part of the Haralson parentage. It is a cross, simply designated Malinda (f) x Wealthy (m). The combination has given us a tree known for its vigor and hardiness, and a fruit that is excellent for eating—raw or in pies, served with or without a dollop of ice cream.

Minnesota’s most recent star is the Honeycrisp, which debuted in 1991. The Association for University Technology Managers called it one of the “25 Innovations That Changed the World” in 2006, describing it as an apple “with almost magical qualities” that “marries sweetness sought by some and tartness touted by others.” Its lineage includes the Keepsake, a product of the University of Minnesota’s crossbreeding program. The Honeycrisp’s other parent? The family tree lacks some clarity. It seems one of its ancestors may have been lost in the discard bin—and I’d like to think that one of its parents made an unexpected stop along a railroad track somewhere.

When I look at the many beautiful apples that are available in Minnesota today, I know how far we’ve come. What my family harvested along the railroad tracks were actually inadvertent gifts from train passengers who threw their apple cores out the window as they passed our property in the 1920s and ’30s. But my father was partly right: The apples that resulted were really hobos of the fruit world, tattered and unkempt and lacking the kind of nurturing that might have given them a more respectable life. They looked like vagabonds with unfortunate backgrounds. They didn’t look like trees that grew up in a good neighborhood with good schools and loving parents.

Minnesota’s popular apple varieties are the result of experimentation and persistence. They deserve the praise they get, and I bow to them with a farm boy’s humility, of course. But all apples have an interesting history, even the bitter ones. Even the alum-tasting ones. And especially, I think, the knobbiest ones. If tomorrow I saw a new apple at the market with the name Hobo Delight, I’d buy a peck in a second.

Jim Heynen is the author of The One Room Schoolhouse and several other books. He lives in St. Paul.

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