Recently Mister Boomer listened to a radio interview with an organic apple grower that reminded him of yet another thing that has dramatically changed since our early boomer years. That is, as the grower stated, she grows “ugly fruit” in comparison to the specimens that currently grace supermarket shelves.
Apples originated in Central Asia thousands of years ago, and had been grown in Europe for several thousand years before their seeds were transported to the Americas. There are about 7,500 varieties of apples grown around the world, with about 2,500 of those grown in the U.S. Apples are cultivated in nearly every state, but six states account for the vast majority of apples that are consumed in the U.S.: Washington, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Virginia.
Apples, like most fruit grown during the post-War decade, remained predominantly regional, as the main transport for the fruit was by freight train. Chances are, when boomers ate apples in the late 1940s and 1950s, the fruit was grown in their own or a neighboring state. The Interstate Highway system, built in the mid-’60s, allowed for quicker transport of fruits and vegetables across state lines and across the country.
The concept of “ugly fruit,” though, is not strange to those of us raised as Baby Boomers. Fruit was fruit, and we didn’t know any differently, but because it was something grown, we were used to imperfections and, in some cases, the presence of insects. Cartoons from the 1930s through the 1960s featured worms in apples as characters themselves. We grew up watching these cartoons, so when someone near us found one in an apple, we would suggest they “eat around it.” The joke was that what you didn’t want to find in your apple was half a worm.
Pesticides that began being used after the War decreased the amount of worms in apples, the most notorious being DDT. At the time it was considered an all-around good pesticide and was actually sprayed in some states from the backs of trucks driving through neighborhoods as a way of controlling insect populations. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, released in 1962, helped bring awareness to the ill-effects of pesticide use on the environment and human health, but it wasn’t until 1972 that DDT use was banned. In some ways, it was actually a good thing, then, to see a worm in an apple, in that you probably had one that hadn’t been treated with the pesticide.
Mister Boomer recalls seeing apples in every supermarket, produce stand and farmers market from an early age. The fruit we saw was smaller than today’s apples; it was unwaxed and therefore lacked the shine on today’s product. In those early days the wide variety of apples we see available for purchase today may have been grown for specific markets, but in the stores in Mister B’s area there were almost exclusively only four varieties: Macintosh, Red Delicious, Jonathan and Golden Delicious. Varietals were available locally direct from farmers or neighbors, as there were apple trees in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, both in backyards and growing in the wild. Mister B recalls Granny Smith apples becoming popular, but that wasn’t until the 1970s.
Mister Boomer remembers one tree in particular that the neighborhood kids would climb, and, resting in its branches, they’d pick the fruit and eat it on the spot. It was a variety of crab apple (the only indigenous type of apple in the Americas), and therefore much smaller and more bitter than a regular apple. Over-ripe fruit that lay beneath the tree became easy missiles to toss at one another or passing trailer-trucks on the highway that ran alongside the tree. The flat sides of the trailers served as target practice where a satisfying splat could be seen and heard. Alas, Mister B was too afraid of repercussions to participate in these neighborhood shenanigans, so he remained an observer.
So when did things change for us, boomers? We grew up with imperfect fruit, but somewhere down the line we were shown more perfect specimens, and we wholeheartedly embraced the change. Is it possible that the movement toward locally-sourced and organically-grown foods are echoes of our childhood memories of what used to be, now genetically imprinted on a new generation as if we ourselves are saying, “Go on, taste it. Taste the difference.”? That difference, boomers, is our shared memories, and they are tasting sweeter every year.
Did you ever find a worm in an apple, boomers?