Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

Apples of Uncommon Character—Book Review

Book Review

Title: Apples of Uncom­mon Character

Author: Rowan Jacobsen

Strong points: If you are a “foodie” look­ing for new taste expe­ri­ences this may be the book for you. One hun­dred twenty three apple vari­eties, heir­loom and mod­ern, are described as if each apple were a fine wine. Art­ful yet accu­rate pho­tos raise this book to cof­fee table qual­ity. The book’s matte fin­ish cover give it a sen­sory appeal far beyond that of other ordi­nary books.

Weak­nesses: The author appears to have a minor love-hate rela­tion­ship with nearly every vari­ety in the book. It makes me won­der which apples he actu­ally does like or would rec­om­mend. It appears that most of the hands-on apple grow­ing experts that the author used as his sources come from New Eng­land or at most the east coast. This does cre­ate some lim­i­ta­tions in the vari­ety sam­pling. If this book were specif­i­cally pre­sented as being regional, indeed these sources are some of the best in business.

Green thumbs rat­ing

Book Rat­ing:  

I find myself hav­ing some­what of a bipo­lar reac­tion to Apples of Uncom­mon Char­ac­ter. Just like its author who starts each vari­ety descrip­tion with its short­com­ings, I find this book in some ways unsat­is­fy­ing because that is the first impres­sion it gives me of numer­ous apples I know to be praise-worthy. Yet, even­tu­ally he often brings the nar­ra­tive to a close with ornate prose on a given variety’s best virtue. At the same time I find the acknowl­edg­ment that not every apple is at its best all the time to be real­is­tic and very true. I could not agree more on that point.

As a mat­ter of per­sonal taste, I find the fla­vor eval­u­a­tions that are writ­ten as if cri­tiquing high-end wines a bit off-putting. For many of us the apple is the everyman’s fruit. The descrip­tions give me the feel­ing of puffery—stretching to make the apples some­thing they are not. Yet, for those who fancy them­selves as con­nois­seurs, “food­ies,” or hav­ing a highly sophis­ti­cated palate this may be just the book for you. For this later group, there are also a small selec­tion of recipes that fea­ture apples. Most would not be some­thing I would make for my every­day meal or per­haps ever (Lob­ster Wal­dorf Salad ???) A few cer­tainly are entic­ing for a spe­cial occa­sion attempt.

The apple vari­eties in Apples of Uncom­mon Char­ac­ter are grouped by most likely use—summer sea­son fruit, desserts, bak­ers and sauce, keep­ers, and cider fruit with a few odd­balls wrap­ping up the lot. Indeed that makes this book an easy to use ref­er­ence. After all, the major­ity of us choose and grow our fruit based on how we ulti­mately plan to use it. It also makes side-by-side com­par­i­son of apples with sim­i­lar char­ac­ter eas­ier if we need to limit our choices when gar­den space is at a pre­mium. Real­ize that this title is in no way a “how to grow” book, nor does it in any way por­tray itself as such.

Over­all, I am still try­ing to decide what taste Apples of Uncom­mon Char­ac­ter leaves me with. The writ­ing style is crisp and at times offers a chuckle of recog­ni­tion when read­ing about apples I know well. Yet some of it left a too pre­ten­tious feel­ing that I some­how felt was forced though per­haps not really intended. So, I’ll close by say­ing you’ll have to read and decide for your­self. As with apples, books are often a mat­ter of per­sonal taste. Such is the case with Apples of Uncom­mon Character.

ISBN: 987–1-62040–227-6 (Hard­cover)
# of pages: 311 pgs.
Pho­tos: Yes, beau­ti­fully and cre­atively done.
Illus­tra­tions: No
Appen­dix: Glos­sary, mainly of author/pomologists of his­toric note; Resource page of nurs­eries, hard cider mak­ers, and apple fes­ti­vals.
Index: Pre­sented as an alpha­bet­i­cal list of the vari­eties described
Pub­lisher: Blooms­bury
Pub­li­ca­tion Date: Sep­tem­ber 2014
Price: $35