Or Know your Apple, Know your Century!
I recently reread Emily of New Moon, the first book of three in a series by Anne of Green Gables author L. M. Montgomery and frankly, except for the first Anne book, I like the Emily series better. Emily is very different from Anne in personality type and her series has more magical elements to it. And though like Anne, Emily is also orphaned at a young age, her home life is far from cheerful and she struggles against the oppression of a stern old aunt who not only makes her life difficult, but thwarts her love of writing every chance she gets. But like Anne, she has an indomitable spirit that gets her through the cruel times.
As I read Emily of New Moon I was struck, as I often am when reading classic literature, about something historical or in this case, gastronomical, that I wanted to know more about; it had to do with apples and in all my years, I had never heard of apples described like this.
For example, when a character bites into an apple, that is usually all the writer says about it, or sometimes with a short description, “Mike bit into a juicy red apple.” And because readers know what a juicy red apple tastes and looks like, we don’t pay it much mind and move on with the character. But if that story takes place in early 20th century Canada or America that apple may not be red, delicious or juicy. Fruit historians call this time period the golden age of apples and the variety was vast.
… in the 19th century, apples came in all shapes, sizes and guises, some with rough, sandpapery skin, others as misshapen as potatoes, ranging from the size of a cherry to bigger than a grapefruit. Colors ran the entire spectrum with a wonderful impressionistic array of patterning—flushes, stripes, splashes, and dots. There was an apple for every community, taste, purpose, and season, with winter varieties especially prized.[i]
Emily of New Moon takes place in the early years of the 20th century on Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada. New Moon is known for its apples and Emily is standing in the workroom of her neighbor surveying the long row of apples he kept on a beam for Emily and her friends to eat:
Three varieties of Lofty John’s apples were their especial favourites—the “scabby apples,” that looked as if they had leprosy but were of unsurpassed deliciousness under their queer blotched skins; the “little red apples,” scarcely bigger than a crab, deep crimson all over and glossy as satin, that had such a sweet, nutty flavour; and the big green “sweet apples” that children usually thought the best of all. Emily considered that day wasted whose low descending sun had not beheld her munching one of Lofty John’s big green sweets. [ii]
How odd it would sound if we read, “Mike bites into a scabby, leprous-looking apple of wonderful deliciousness.” But it would be true!
[ii] LM Montgomery, Emily of New Moon, (New York: Bantam), 32. First published in 1923 by Frederick A. Stokes Co.