Robert Sietsema reviews 'Apples' by Frank Browning

Published September 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

There's been an avalanche of cookbooks published over the last decade on increasingly obscure and constricted topics -- I recently received one devoted entirely to chocolate cookies. Riding the coattails of this trend has been a handful of non-cookbooks devoted to individual foods, often with a few recipes thrown in to enhance their appeal among cookbook consumers. Two prototypes were "Sweetness and Power," an exhaustive neo-Marxist study of the history and economics of sugar by Sidney Mintz, and "Corn," Betty Fussel's lengthy and abundantly illustrated exploration of the romance of maize. These treatments remained at least partly academic, but subsequent contributions have been more slender and written in a more popular vein -- you can read them lying down while a dog licks your feet without loss of comprehension.

Wall Street Journal reporter Amal Naj's "Peppers," one of the best books ever written about food, proved that the Portuguese were responsible for nearly every modern food trend; and lately we've feasted on Mark Kurlansky's "Cod," a brief historical and environmental epic by a one-time cod fisherman. Now along comes Frank Browning's "Apples." Like Kurlansky, he's practiced what he preaches, coming from a long line of Kentucky orchardists. In the opening pages he presents himself as something of a backwoods hillbilly, until you learn that his father liked to spout Latin and that he himself has written several books and served as a National Public Radio commentator and has lived in New York, San Francisco and Paris. How he did this while keeping the family farm from sinking is never fully explained.

Browning has produced an interesting and readable book on apples, which he rhapsodically calls "the hardiest, most resilient and most diverse fruit on the earth." Like all of the single-topic food books, "Apples" works best when there's a mystery to be solved, in this case the origin of the first apple, the search for which takes the author to the Central Asian republic of Kazhakstan. There he meets Aimak Djangaliev, an octogenarian pomologist who, almost predictably, spent the first part of his career hiding from Stalin's secret police. It turns out that the ancient apple forests of the Tian Shan mountains possess genetic traits that have much to offer the modern apple breeder, even though the gnarled and uncultivated trees often produce apples Browning calls "spitters" -- one bite and you have to spit them out.

Djangaliev is only one in a cast of fascinating characters who bring the book to life. There's also Tom Burford, the specialist charged with repopulating Monticello's apple orchards, who searches for the tantalizing Taliaferro, a long-lost cider apple said to be Jefferson's favorite, and Akio Tanii, a Japanese agricultural researcher who was hectored into committing suicide after inadvertently revealing to Western scientists the presence of fire blight in Japanese fruit. Browning handles scientific topics like fire blight with ease, drawing parallels with human diseases. Indeed, the sections of the book that deal with apple genetics are miraculous in their clarity and readability. Less interesting is the apple mythology, wherein the author retells familiar stories from Greek, Roman and Scandinavian sources as if running a foot race while the publisher shoots at him from behind.

As is the habit with this sort of book, the back matter contains recipes, here presented in a narrative form that may frustrate less-accomplished cooks. Much better is the appendix that devotes a paragraph apiece to the 20 apples most prized by the author. I'm taking this with me on my next visit to the farmer's market.

By Robert Sietsema

Robert Sietsema writes the weekly column "Counter Culture" for the Village Voice and is the author of "The Food Lover's Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City."

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