Fall is prime apple harvest season in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where we’re heading for a few days to enjoy the colorful peak time leaf change. There’ll be lots going on at the famous, century-old Orchard at Altapass a few miles from our Spruce Pine cabin, and the Mitchell County Historical Society is sponsoring its annual Apple Butter Festival in nearby Bakersville on Oct. 21.
The Bakersville event will feature arts and crafts vendors, food booths, and local bands—and of course huge, steaming kettles of apple butter you can slather on fresh hot biscuits. The concoction of apples, sugar, and spices, in origin a tasty means of preserving the fruit through the winter months, dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was first produced by monks in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
The apple tree, Malus pumila, along with apricots, peaches, and several other fruits, is a member of the rose family. There are thousands of cultivars, and the Altapass Orchard produces about 40 of them that are variously available from late spring through October. The Yellow Transparent is ready for plucking in June, and the ever popular Red and Golden Delicious are available now.
A couple others are favorites of mine, not only because they’re yummy, but also because they remind me of the Romans. The Orchard folks call their Rome Beauty a “classic” pie apple. And the Latin name of their Magnum Bonum says it all - it’s “big” (as in MAGNitude, MAGNify, and MAGNificent) and “good” (as in BONa fide/good faith and BONus, a reward for your good work on the job).
Apple trees have been cultivated for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found strings of dried apples from ancient Mesopotamia, and from at least 3,000 B.C. onward apples were used in cooking, medicine, and magic. The fruit, malum in classical Latin, melon in Greek, is mentioned in the Odyssey, where Homer writes of vast fields of “luxuriant trees…always in their prime, pomegranates and pears, and apples glowing red” (Robert Fagles’ translation). Alexander the Great was fond of them, the 2nd century A.D. medical writer Galen recommended eating fresh apples for a healthy diet, and cider (vinum ex melis, “wine from apples”) was prescribed by other physicians as a tonic.
Roman orchardists developed several new varieties, some for improved storage over winter. Tree root cavities and an actual carbonized apple have been found at Pompeii. A complete dinner was said to provide everything ab ovo (as in OVum and OVal) usque ad mala, “from egg to apples” - an expression that came to mean something like our “from soup to nuts.” The 1st cent. A.D. emperor Domitian enjoyed apples for lunch. And a famous ancient cookbook that has survived under the name of “Apicius” contains recipes for minced pork and apple stew, cider-infused gravy, and apple and honey preserves.
The fruit figured prominently in art and myth. One of Hercules’ 12 Labors was to fetch the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, and another golden apple, inscribed “For the Fairest,” led to a squabble among Olympian goddesses that ultimately precipitated the Trojan War. Atalanta lost a footrace with her suitor Hippomenes, distracted by golden apples he dropped along the course.
We have our own apple lingo and lore. Your sweetheart may be “the apple of your eye.” A cad is a “bad apple.” We all know that “one rotten apple spoils the bunch;” the Romans had a similar adage (which turns up in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove), that an over-ripe grape can spoil the cluster. The forbidden fruit hanging from the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Good and Evil has long been taken to be an apple, partly for the fact that Latin malum means both bad or evil (as in MALevolent and MALicious) and, when pronounced with a long-a sound, “apple.” Our term “Adam’s apple” derives from the notion that a piece of the fruit lodged in Adam’s throat.
John Chapman, the real-life 18th-century figure whose entrepreneurialism gave rise to the legend of Johnny Appleseed, ended up with more than a thousand acres of orchards planted chiefly to brew alcoholic cider. A splash of hard cider may be good for the heart, and at my age I’m certain that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” has something to do with fiber content and the bowels. The Romans likewise knew the value of regularity and advised bene caca, “poop well,” and the doctors be damned!
This doctor’s best advice is to head to the mountains and buy yourself a few jars of fresh apple butter, a peck or two of those “big and good” high-fiber apples, and maybe a few gallons of hard cider, if you can find it, to get you through the winter!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities. His latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.