Keeping Heirloom Apples Alive Is 'Like A Chain Letter' Over Many Centuries Scott Farm in Vermont grows 100 apple varieties, some of them dating back to the 1700s. These apples may not look as pretty as the Red Delicious, but what they lack in looks they make up for in taste.

Keeping Heirloom Apples Alive Is 'Like A Chain Letter' Over Many Centuries

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It is apple season. And you know if you get a hankering and go to the supermarket, you'll see bins of big, shiny, perfect fruit - the usual suspects; Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Macintosh, a few more. They often look better than they taste. But there's a whole world of heirloom apples out there. Apples that may look really funky but taste fantastic with flavors unlike any apples you've tried before. These are varieties that date back hundreds of years, if you can find them. We find them at Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. We're out tasting heirloom apples to see if they're ready for picking.

EZEKIEL GOODBAND: This is one that I would say is a sprightly flavored apple.

BLOCK: (Laughter) Sprightly?

GOODBAND: Sprightly.

BLOCK: Orchard manager Ezekiel Goodband is pretty sprightly himself, with twinkly eyes and a long, gray-brown beard tucked into a well-worn sweater. He's devoted his life to heirloom apples, has spent decades carefully grafting and tending historic varieties. As we walk, he looks around at acres of trees - 100 kinds of apples.

GOODBAND: We'd start off with Red Astrakhan, go to Yellow Transparent, then Chenango Strawberry.

BLOCK: Some are round and tiny, others lobed or pear-shaped, from acid green to mousy, freckled brown to rosy pink. And who can resist with names like these...

GOODBAND: Winter Bananas, Pitmaston Pineapples. Oh, Bell de Boskoop.

BLOCK: We come upon a tree heavy with strange fruit - apples that only their mother might love.

GOODBAND: This is Knobbed Russet.

BLOCK: These looks like defects. These look like mutant apples.

GOODBAND: These - yes. I describe them as a tree of shrunken heads.


BLOCK: They are gnarled and warty and brown and kind of shriveled.

GOODBAND: Yes, but they taste great.

BLOCK: Goodband is helping to preserve historic varieties that have been handed down over the centuries. Like farmers for generations before him, he's painstakingly collected cuttings and grafted them to root stock. That's the only way to do it to keep the exact DNA of these apples alive.

GOODBAND: It's sort of like a chain letter. And I like that connection.

BLOCK: Goodband, like many of us, grew up on Red Delicious apples. His father grew them. They'd eat them year-round. And like many of us, he won't touch them now. Those leathery, indestructible behemoths cultivated to be ever redder and bigger at the expense of flavor.

GOODBAND: Apparently, there was no one involved in this process who said, well, but how does it taste?

BLOCK: Now these days, lots of people are ecstatic about the taste of the Honeycrisp - a new-ish apple created at the University of Minnesota in 1991. It's got cells that explode with juice, a crackling crunch. But Ezekiel Goodband isn't a fan of the Honeycrisp, though he does grow it. Too one-note, he says. And get this - he claims even his pigs don't like it. If he puts Honeycrisps in their trough, he says they'll tip it over.

GOODBAND: They're interested at first. But then, you know, I can tell in their eyes that they're looking for more.

BLOCK: So they really - they won't eat it?

GOODBAND: They won't eat it. It's like they're saying, come on, we know you've got some good stuff. We're just going to wait.


GOODBAND: Gentlemen, what's up?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, looking for you, sir to know what to pick, you know?


BLOCK: The picking crew has joined us. Six men, all from Jamaica, in their 50s and 60s. Their devotion to this place and to Ezekiel Goodband is clear. Some of the men have worked for him for more than 20 years.

GOODBAND: So some Hubbardston, some Holstein.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And some Cortland?

GOODBAND: Yeah, the Red Cortland.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. OK, sir. All right.

GOODBAND: But remember?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Two-and-a half inches?

GOODBAND: Yes, two-and-a-half inches - 50 percent red.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Fifty percent red. No bruises.

BLOCK: No bruises.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That's the key. And God's speed.

GOODBAND: God's speed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And God's speed.

BLOCK: The workers say they're proud to know all of these uncommon apples. And they treat them almost with affection. When they prop their wooden ladders against the treetops, they maneuver them gently, and they're careful with the fruit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nice and easy.

BLOCK: Nice and easy. Remember, no bruises.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) Won't you help me sing these songs of freedom.

BLOCK: With some Bob Marley to keep them focused.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) 'Cause all I ever had - hey - redemption songs.

BLOCK: With all this ripe fruit around, I ask, aren't they tempted to snack? Not so much, Michael Johnson tells me.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: They say come and get me, come and get me. It's fun to get them.

BLOCK: So you don't look up there and see that beautiful apple and think, I'd like to try that one?

JOHNSON: Into the bin.

BLOCK: Into the bin.

JOHNSON: Into the bin.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: OK. Into the bin, you know.

GOODBAND: You can hear the crispness.

BLOCK: We're back by the Scott Farm packing barn now with a self-described apple geek Rowan Jacobsen. He traces his apple awakening to Ezekiel Goodband and Zeke's apples that he discovered at his local food co-op. That apple adventure has come to fruition in Jacobsen's new book titled "Apples Of Uncommon Character." And the apple he's just bitten into is one of those - an Apple called a Pixie Crunch that he's brought back from a trip to Washington State. It's small, round and bright red - the perfect size for a child's hand.

ROWAN JACOBSEN: It's super cute, right?

BLOCK: The Pixie Crunch was created in the '70s through a university apple breeding program. And Jacobsen thinks this small apple has a big future. He relates a conversation he had about it with some big industrial apple-growers out in Washington.

JACOBSEN: And the guys growing them was saying, like, this is going to be the next big apple. And the other guy was just shaking his head and saying no one will ever buy an apple that small. So there's really this tension right now even among the big guys. Some of them have this old-school mentality of what the market wants. And there's kind of a disconnect because the market that I know actually likes small apples and likes different apples than are out there.

BLOCK: Pixie Crunch?

JACOBSEN: Pixie Crunch. Look for them in stores, everywhere in about four years.

BLOCK: But as for orchard manager Ezekiel Goodband, he's not interested in the Pixie Crunch - too sweet, he says. And he's not interested in apples designed to travel well for long distances. His is small-batch agriculture, sold locally. His apples will cost more than conventional fruit. Goodband can afford to be choosy. He only grows fruit that delights him.

GOODBAND: I've got to be dazzled.

BLOCK: And he wants that fruit to dazzle his customers.

GOODBAND: Fruit that people maybe have forgotten about, maybe their grandparents grew it or it doesn't ship well across the country and it only is at its peak for maybe a week or two. When I give people one of these apples, they'll come back next week and say, that was the best apple I've ever had in my life. I didn't know apples could taste like that.

BLOCK: Ezekiel Goodband is 61 and says the heirloom trees he grows will last beyond his lifetime. Now he says it's his turn to teach someone else - someone younger - how to keep them going.


This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.