Friday, February 24, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

As I may have mentioned here, my Orchard Mystery series came about because of a conversation with my agent. She had seen (and rejected) a submission about a woman who stumbled into running a bed and breakfast in western Massachusetts, in a colonial house that happened to have a ghost. If you've read any of the Orchard books, you know that the house is not a bed and breakfast, and there is no resident ghost.

But we both liked the setting and the central character, so we started batting around ideas that that might work while keeping the good parts. Rural area, with some high-brow colleges nearby…hmm. We rejected the idea of an organic farm, and then I said "apples," and we were off and running.

What is it about apples that is so appealing? Well, they've been part of American culture since the colonies were settled in the 17th century: the first European apple trees were planted in 1623 in Boston by William Blackstone, who was a minister to the Plymouth settlers. Every household had an apple orchard, mainly for making cider, since people didn't trust the well water and hard cider contained enough alcohol to kill most of the bacteria. George Washington built a distillery to make apple brandy, and John Adams greeting each day with a tankard of (hard) cider. Many of us grew up with the Disney-fied version of Johnny Appleseed (a distant cousin of mine), who was instrumental in spreading apple trees westward.

So unquestionably apples and hard cider were a central part of American life—until Prohibition crushed them. And where there were once as many as a thousand varieties in this country, now we grow only a handful. Still, we regard apples as a healthy food, and their juice as a healthy drink.

But is that all? Since I've been writing about apples for a few years now (educating my city-raised heroine—and myself—about them as I go), I've become more aware of apple representations in the media—and they're everywhere. Somehow a bowl full of apples has become an iconic image.

I'm not going to get into the whole Adam-Eve-Snake-Apple issue. I'm not talking about food-related ads or cooking shows. What I've found recently is that I keep seeing bowls of apples prominently displayed in kitchens and even living rooms on television and in the movies. Take the series The Closer. Those who follow that series will know that neither the protagonist nor her spouse have much interest in cooking. Sure, an apple is a handy snack to have around. But what troubles me is that in this case (a) the apples are left sitting out, unrefrigerated, and (b) there are far more apples in that bowl than the two residents of the household could consume before those poor apples went bad (unless they wanted to risk serious intestinal upsets).

Once I noticed this, I started seeing the same bowl of apples everywhere--network shows, and a lot of commercials. And even in the White House: during a recent newscast held in the Oval Office—yes, there was that bowl of apples, front and center on a low table.

How did we manage to load a simple fruit with such iconographic significance? I'm guessing that a bowl of apples immediately suggests home, history, honesty, hard work, and healthy bowels. But at the same time we have more or less homogenized them, ignoring or breeding out the subtleties of flavor and size and appearance. Say "apple" to almost anyone and their first thought is "Delicious," or just maybe "Macintosh." (My alternate theory is that they are alien seeds, and when they hatch they will take over the world.)

I will plead guilty to exploiting that same iconography for my mystery series. Is there anybody who doesn't love apples? The apple orchard in my fictional Granford is an ongoing and growing character in the books, and my readers seem to respond to that. I'm happy to take advantage of that symbolism, whatever the origin. And I've planted six apples trees around my house.

1 comment:

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sheila, have you read Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, or seen the documentary based on it? He looks at 4 plants that changed the world: apples, potatoes, tulips, and marijuana. It's fascinating. Apples originated in Kazahkstan, and we have a friend from there who's described the amazing wild apple groves--imagine the sight in spring!