A Masterpiece Written In Our Own Era

Old Southern Apples by Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr. (with Edith Calhoun)

Courtesy of Chelsea Green

Without question, the most remarkable horticultural history book of this decade was released in late January, some fifteen years after its first edition astounded orchard keepers and agricultural historians everywhere. The second edition of Old Southern Apples is not simply expanded to include 1800 apple varieties, but it is an altogether more significant book, thanks to the extraordinary research accomplished by Lee and Edith Calhoun, and the inclusion of 120 newly-scanned watercolors of heirloom apples from the National Agricultural Library collection. It now serves as a new standard for horticultural publishing, particularly with regard to documentation of the extraordinary food biodiversity that has been part and parcel of America’s rural cultures and landscapes.

Before I get the cart ahead of the Horse apple, let me highlight the key features of this book. Since the first edition released in 1995, Lee and Edith Calhoun have received and responded to thousands of letters with clues to the origins of historic Southern apples, that is, named varieties once widely grown and marketed prior to 1928.  Some of these forgotten apples came to thye Calhoun’s Pittsboro. North Carolina nursery, while others came as gifts through intermediaries such as Tom Brown, who puts in 20,000 miles each year searching for Southern apples and recording their stories. Upon describing these apples newly brought to his attention, Mr. Calhoun has matched them with the geography, history and names (often multiple for one genotype) of apples referred to in nursery catalogs, agricultural experiment station bulletins and other ephemera. In short, he has compiled the largest and most definitive regional compendium of apple lore for any region in North America.

One must ask why the number of unique apples in the South dwarfs that of all the other regions of North America combined. The answer is complex—there is no simple soundbyte—but the combination of geographic isolation and cultural curiousity with horticultural novelty is key. In fact, the Upland South should really be known as Apple-achia, since it still serves as the motherlode of apple diversity.

Courtesy of Chelsea Green

If 1800 meticulously-researched and elegantly written varietal descriptions were not enough, then consider Calhoun’s front matter: a comprehensive history of the apple in the South, and a definitive treatment of apple cultivation practices of various historic eras, and a survey of historic uses of Southern apples. In addition to these long, well-crafted essays, Calhoun includes entertaining sidebar essays on Johnny Appleseed (not all laudatory!), the art of cooking apples, and several other topics.

For readers who cherished the color plates in the first edition, be prepared to be awestruck by the quality and color intensity of the plates which Lee Calhoun and editor Ben Watson selected for the second edition. Thanks to a Ceres Foundation grant to the National Agricultural Library,  a whole host of never-before published historic watercolors were chosen for this addition. They are, quite simply, knockouts—as fine as any prints ever published in an affordable book on horticultural history.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that this work is not merely of importance for apple growers and apple historians. It is one of the most valuable compendia we have ever had in for a critical segment of our historic food biodiversity and its cultural significance. It celebrates the incredible richness of historic apple culture, and mourns the loss of so much of this diversity within our own lifetimes. It is particularly poignant that Lee lost his wife and “silent” collaborator on this project the very month that the book was to be released; Edith was able to see a specially-bound edition of the book just before she succumbed to a coma. While the loss of so many apples in his region has always been painful for Lee, the untimely loss of his “sweetheart” to whom the book is dedicated must be overwhelming in every possible way. America owes both of the Calhouns much for the dedication, diligence and brilliance with which they accomplished their tasks. The second  edition of Old Southern Apples is a book like no other, and will be read (perhaps on kindles and other unforeseen devices) for at least another century. In short, it is timeless.

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  1. [...] The following review was written by Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Renewing America’s Food Traditions and co-author of the newly released Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots on the Pepper Trail.  It appeared originally online at his website, GaryNabhan.com. [...]

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