All About Apples: Some History, a Recipe, and Recommendations

An excerpt from “Eating on the Wild Side,” complete with apple crisp recipe.

Photo by SweetOnVeg/flickr/CC BY 2.0
Photo by SweetOnVeg/flickr/CC BY 2.0

The following is excerpted from Eating on the Wild Side, by Jo Robinson. Published in June 2013 by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2013 by Jo Robinson. All rights reserved.


At first, American farmers were content to grow the varieties of apples they had imported from the Old World. Then they began creating the first made “in” America clones. To do this, they surveyed the wide variety of apple trees that had grown from the seeds of the Old World fruit and selected the best ones to clone. One of the earliest creations was the Roxbury Russet, a medium-size apple with rough, or russeted, skin; our modern obsession with large, smooth, shiny apples had yet to take hold. The variety was so popular in the 1700s that it was given the affectionate nickname the Roz. The Newtown Pippin, another beloved apple, was grown as a cash crop by Thomas Jefferson. In 1837, the American minister to England presented Queen Victoria with several barrels of Newtown Pippins. She was so enamored with the fruit that she persuaded the British Parliament to lower the import tax on all American apples.

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By 1910, more than fifteen thousand named varieties of apples were growing in US orchards. That number began to dwindle in the next few decades, as large orchards began to supply more of the nation’s apples. The growers found it was much more efficient to grow a small number of varieties and to favor those that produced sweet, glossy fruit that was uniform in color, size, and shape. Small apples like the Roz, with its rough green- and- yellow skin, did not make the cut. The Newtown Pippin was rejected for similar reasons. The apple that captivated Queen Victoria is now growing in only a few dozen US orchards that specialize in heirloom varieties.

Today, the number of varieties growing in the United States has been winnowed down to five hundred—3 percent of the original fifteen thousand. At first glance, five hundred varieties may seem like ample diversity, but there’s a catch— fewer than fifty of these varieties are being produced in any quantity. It gets worse. Nine out of every ten apples we eat come from a mere dozen varieties. We’ve gone from fifteen thousand varieties to twelve in just three generations. You see the same assortment of apples in store after store: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Idared, Gravenstein, McIntosh, Cortland, and the newly popular Honeycrisp. These varieties—the twelve most common in America—are making inroads around the world as well, squeezing out more nutritious heirloom apples. The low- nutrient Golden Delicious is not only the most popular apple in the United States, it is now the top- selling apple in the world.

At long last, the loss of nutrition and variety in our modern apples is coming to the attention of food activists, pioneering apple breeders, and USDA fruit researchers. A team of fruit specialists from the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA has mounted an aggressive campaign to collect buds and cuttings from all the known species of wild apples. Their primary goal is to create new varieties that are more resistant to disease. For the first time, however, they are also gathering information about their nutritional content. As a part of this work, they’ve gone back to Kazakhstan and tested the composition of apples from a large number of Malus sieversii trees. They discovered that some of the wild apples have six times more phytonutrients than our present- day variations of the same species. By going back to the source, it will be possible to begin the domestication process all over again, only this time, apple breeders will have the information they need to create twenty-first century varieties that retain more of the health benefits of the original fruit.

Eating on the Wild Side


Another encouraging sign is that heritage orchards are making a comeback, to the delight of people who choose to eat locally as well as those who are searching for apples with more complex and varied flavors than those found in the supermarket. Slow Food USA, a nonprofit organization based in Brooklyn, New York, is doing its part by fighting to preserve select varieties that have a rich history and great flavor. The Newtown Pippin is a new addition to their apple protection program. Queen Victoria would have approved.

More good news comes from New Zealand. In April of 2000, Mark Christensen, an accountant and longtime advocate of heirloom fruits and vegetables, discovered one of the most nutritious apple varieties in the world. Christensen was driving on North Island when he spotted an old apple tree growing by the side of the road. He stopped to take a closer look at the fruit. The apples were unlike any variety he had ever seen. Intrigued, he ate one of the apples and was pleased with its juiciness and flavor. He gathered some up to take home.

In addition to being a connoisseur of apples, Christensen has a keen interest in nutrition. He operates on the belief that “for every disease affecting human health, there will be a plant with the necessary compounds to treat the disease.” To test the disease- fighting potential of his apples, he sent some to the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research for nutritional analysis. The institute tested the apples and compared them with 250 other varieties. The apples from the roadside tree had exceptionally high levels of phytonutrients. In fact, the skin of the apples had more flavonoids than any other known variety of apple and the second highest amount of beneficial compounds called proanthocyanidins. In 2006, Christensen sent the apples to the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research to see if the fruit had any potential to fight cancer. Lab tests showed that extracts of the apples reduced the growth of many different types of cancer cells, and it was more effective at destroying colon cancer cells than any other apple tested.

Christensen named the new variety Monty’s Surprise. New Zealanders call it the Full Monty because this apple has it all—great flavor, beauty, size, a bounty of phytonutrients, and the promise of being a potent weapon against cancer. Instead of patenting his find, as most plant breeders do today, Christensen and others formed the nonprofit Central Tree Crops Research Trust to spread the news about the new variety and to give away young trees. To date, the foundation has donated more than eight thousand trees to New Zealanders. Plans are under way to export Monty’s Surprise to other countries, including the United States. When the apples arrive here, you will read about it in the news.

RECIPE: Apple Crisp With Apple Skins

Prep time: 30 minutes
Baking time: 50–60 minutes
Total time: 80–90 minutes
Yield: 6–8 servings

2 ½  pounds apples, preferably Granny Smith or another nutritious variety
½ cup honey
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, or rice flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¾ cup unbleached all-purposeflour, whole-wheat flour, or rice flour
¾ cup rolled oats (not instant)
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed, or ½ cup honey
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted or salted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Peel and core the apples, but do not discard the peels. Slice the peeled apples into ¼ inch slices and place into a large mixing bowl.

Combine 1 cup of the sliced apples, the apple skins, the honey, 1 tablespoon flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor. Process on high speed until the skins are finely chopped, about 3 minutes. (This will seem like a long time.) Stop and scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir the chopped mixture into the bowl of sliced apples, then spoon into a greased 8-inch square baking pan. Set aside.

To make the topping, combine all the topping ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Stir until blended, then spoon over the apples. Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake 50–60 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the apple slices are tender. Cool 10– 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Variations: Add a teaspoon of grated lemon peel to the apples. Add ¼ teaspoon ground allspice or ground cloves. Use pecans instead of walnuts.


In the Supermarket:

Braeburn Bicolored apple discovered in New Zealand in 1952. Excellent eating quality. Crisp and juicy with a balanced blend of sweet and tart. Keeps well. Lower in phytonutrients than most of the following varieties.
Cortland Juicy, tender, snow-white flesh and thin skin. Good dessert and salad apple. Does not brown readily. Commonly available in New York State and surrounding areas. Very high in phytonutrients.
Discovery Sweet and crisp. Discovered in England in the 1940s. Pink-tinged flesh. Does not store well. One of the most nutritious varieties. Rare.
Fuji Sweet, crisp, and a good keeper. Widely available. Developed in Japan. A cross between the Red Delicious and another nutritious heirloom variety, Ralls Janet. One of the most nutritious of the 12 most common varieties.
Gala Another New Zealand creation. Sweeter than the Braeburn and slightly higher in phytonutrients. Good dessert apple with mild flavor.
Granny Smith Large, green, tart apple that is the most nutritious of the 12 most common varieties. It has 13 times more phytonutrients than Ginger Gold.
Honeycrisp Now one of the most popular varieties in the United States. Crisp, sweet, subacid flavor. It is one of the more nutritious varieties in the supermarket, provided you eat the peel. (The peel is especially high in phytonutrients.)
Liberty Liberty is a medium-size red apple that was once rare but is now becoming more common. Higher in phytonutrients than Granny Smith. Crisp, hard apple with a balanced blend of tart and sweet. Good for eating and cooking.
Melrose One of the best keepers. Its flavor improves during storage. Good for pies and baking. Lower in phytonutrients than most of the apples on this list.
Red Delicious Once the most popular apple in the United States, Red Delicious now takes a backseat to Fuji and Honeycrisp, crisper varieties that are equally sweet. This American heirloom is relatively high in phytonutrients — provided you eat the dark red skin. Modern variants have even darker skin.

Farmers Markets, Specialty Stores, Pick Farms, and Nurseries:

Belle de Boskoop Large, greenish-yellow fruit with rough skin. Firm; fragrant; tangy. Very nutritious. Hard-to-find Dutch heirloom developed in 1856. Stores well. Best for zones 6–9. Late-season apple. Needs two different apple varieties for adequate pollination.
Bramley’s Seedling One of the world’s best cooking apples, but hard to find in the United States. Very high in phytonutrients (3 times higher than the Fuji). The apples do not keep their shape when cooked. Best for zones 5–7. Matures in midseason or late season. Needs two pollinators. Vigorous tree produces a heavy crop. The apples store for 3 months or more.
Golden Russet Small heirloom variety with rough, yellow-gold skin. Intense, sweet-and- tart flavor. Considered the best-tasting of its type. Ideal for making cider. Rare. Best for zones 4–10. Late-season apple. Scab-resistant. Vigorous; winter-hardy.
Haralson Bright red, medium-size fruit. Crisp; firm; juicy. Mildly tart. Good baking, eating, and cider apple. Holds its shape when cooked. Extra-high in phytonutrients. Heirloom variety introduced in the United States in 1922. Best for zones 3–7. Does well in cold climates. Stores for 6 months. Biennial bearer. Resists apple scab and cedar-apple rust.
Liberty Medium-size red apple that is becoming more common. Crisp with a good balance of tart and sweet. Good for eating and cooking. Very high in phytonutrients. Best for zones 4–10. Midseason apple. Resistant to scab, rust, mildew, and fire blight, so ideal for organic production.
McIntosh Round, red, sweet, mildly tart fruit with white flesh. Good for eating and cooking. Discovered in Ontario, Canada, in 1798. Best for zones 3–7. Midseason apple. Cold-hardy. Partially self- fertile but does best with a pollinator.
Northern Spy Red-green apple good for eating fresh, cooking, and making juice. Stores very well. Very high in phytonutrients. Heirloom variety developed in the United States in the 1840s. Best for zones 3–7. Late-season apple. Biennial tendency. Slow to start bearing.
Ozark Gold Sweet, honeyed flavor. Juicy and low in acid. Very high in phytonutrients. Introduced in 1970. Comparable to an extremely nutritious Golden Delicious. Best for zones 4–9. Early-to-midseason apple. Highly disease-resistant.
Redfield Dark red skin with dark red flesh and juice. High in acid. Used for cider and baking, not for eating fresh. Very high in antioxidants. Rare. Short storage life. Best for zones 3–4.
Red Jonagold Large red-skinned apple rich in phytonutrients; good for eating and baking. A good blend of sweet and tart. Aromatic. Best for zones 5–8. Late-season apple. Vigorous tree that is early to bear fruit. Requires a pollinator.
Rhode Island Greening One of the best American cooking apples. Highest in major phytonutrients of six apples tested. Heirloom introduced in the United States in 1650s; perhaps the oldest variety of all. Rare. Best for zones 4–10. Late-season variety. Takes long to go into bearing. Deserves a place in more home orchards.
Spartan Red-skinned medium-size apple. Crunchy, sweet, with a delicate winelike flavor. Rich in antioxidants, especially in the skin. Heirloom introduced in the United States in 1936. Best for zones 4–8. Early fall apple and a heavy bearer. Benefits from having a pollinator that also blooms in midseason.
WineCrisp Medium-sized, dark red, nonglossy fruit similar to Winesap. Firm and crisp with a good mix of sweet and tart. Stores well. Debuted in 2009. Best for zones 4–8. Midseason apple. Scab-resistant. Just now becoming available in tree nurseries.

Excerpted from Eating on the Wild Side, by Jo Robinson. Published in June 2013 by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2013 by Jo Robinson. All rights reserved.

Meet the Writer

About Jo Robinson

Jo Robinson is author of Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health (Little, Brown 2013). She’s based in Vashon Island, Washington.

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