Friday, March 4, 2011

Apple of My Eye

I love apples. They've been one of my favorite foods since I was a kid. I used to eat an apple-cut-up-and-peeled each night before going to sleep. Part of my ritual was to drop the plastic bowl on the floor, producing a loud bang. With that, my parents knew I was going to sleep.

But apples -- like so much in our society -- have been commodified down to a few varieties chosen not for taste, but storage life and ease of production and transportation. As a result, one of the most diverse foods on earth has been reduced to only a dozen or fewer commonly available varieties.

The taste of even those has deteriorated over time. I remember the Red Delicious from the 1970s. They were outstanding, sweet and tasty. Over time, their appearance became ever more uniform and appealing -- bright red skin, perfectly proportioned shape -- but their taste all but vanished. Today, I find them inedible. They are a metaphor for so much in America today: Looks beautiful, but lacks substance and integrity.

So it was with immense interest and pleasure that I read an article in yesterday's New York Times about Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. who has dedicated his life to saving and reviving antique apple varieties. It's fascinating and I strongly recommend apple lovers read it.

I recently read a book my father gave me called "Cornered" about the stealth monopolization of most of our economy by a few big corporations. The author questions the fetish of "efficiency," arguing that the most "efficient" approach often leads to job destruction, dangerous over- dependence on one or two sources and loss of variety and choice.

Apples are an excellent example of the perils of "efficiency.". According to the Times article, there were 16,000 varieties of apples in the late 19th century in the United States. Today, there are 3,000 only a handful of which are widely available. Are we better off?

Obviously, we're not going back to 1895, nor would we want to. And de-centralizing apple production would mean higher costs. But it would also mean more variety, better taste and more jobs, especially the type that have real meaning and worth for those doing them and society at large.

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