Thinking About Bad Apples

“Argy-Bargy,” watercolor by Susan Grote.

When I was making this painting, years ago, I was concentrating on choosing the right paint colors to layer to capture the green of the apples. But another part of my mind was thinking, “That apple in the corner is in BIG trouble.”

Recently, we’ve seen people on TV talking about “a few bad apples,” as if they were nothing to worry about. And that got me thinking about the origin of the expression, and about the importance of apples in the past.

I’m old enough to remember when fresh fruit was seasonal. We didn’t have fruits raised on the other side of the equator flown in to our local supermarket. Ordinary families didn’t get to eat strawberries in the fall, or tomatoes and melons in the dead of winter.

Back in the fifties, strawberries marked the coming of summer for me. In May, some gardeners we knew proudly offered me the chance to pick a few ripe ones, and my parents often drove fifteen or twenty miles to a “pick your own” strawberry farm. We picked a couple of lugs. because strawberries were only available for a few weeks. If you wanted that delicious, summery taste later in the year, you ate the strawberry jams or preserves that you had made in early summer.

What we now call “stone fruits” were also available, each in turn, during the summer. Peaches and apricots, easily bruised, were gorged on, then canned or made into jam and jelly. We canned cherries, too. We ate juicy plums while they were in season. (A dried prune is delicious, but nothing like the plum it came from.) Supermarket pears are now bred (like tomatoes) to survive shipping and storage, but pears used to be so delicate that each was wrapped in tissue paper and cradled in a special cardboard box, every pear in its own little nest.

Freezers were small in the fifties — big enough to hold two trays of ice cubes, a quart of ice cream, and eventually, a few “TV Dinners” — the first popular frozen meals for home consumption. But frozen fruit? Not really.

There were times, in the winter and early spring, when you might long for a fresh peach — but there weren’t any. The gift of a “Christmas orange” was special, because in relatively frost-free states like California and Florida, oranges ripened in December, and were shipped all over the States by train and truck. Fresh fruit in December! It was a rare, special treat.

Which brings me to the importance of apples. There were thousands of apple varieties, many with special properties. People ate Macintosh and Red Delicious; sour green “Pippin” apples were prized for baking into pies because they had a low water content (and the pie wouldn’t shrink much or get soggy.) Golden Delicious were good for making baked apples, and Granny Smiths were not too tart to be “eating apples,” but also good in pies. Those were just the popular supermarket apples. Gravensteins made excellent cider and applesauce. Other apples were valued because they lasted! Unlike the soft fruits (peaches, apricots, etc.) some apple varieties could be stored and eaten for months! Fresh fruit you could eat all winter! (The BBC gardening channel says that apple species which ripen in November may last though March if properly stored.)

People might store their apples in attics or cellars or barns: cool, dry, dark places. If you stored them properly, by the end of February when you got tired of eating meat, bread, and root vegetables, you could have a fresh apple  —  even apple pies! Apples were shipped all over the world in barrels — a treatment that no peach would survive!

And this is where we come to the old expression, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”

People noticed that one rotten apple would spread the rot to every apple touching it. If you didn’t find the rotting apple and get it — and the other apples contaminated by mold spores — out of your stored apples in time, the rot would eventually ruin them all.

That is why the apples chosen to be put into winter storage had to be carefully examined first; any flaw, like a bruise or a bird-peck, disqualified the apple, because it would rot and contaminate the others. (The BBC recommends storing apples with space between them so they don’t touch, or wrapping each apple in newspaper.)

And you couldn’t just store your apples, close the attic door, and expect to find them perfect when you needed one. Your stored apples had to be examined carefully every ten days or so.** Each apple was looked at, handled gently to avoid bruising, and any sign of “going bad” — damage or a rotten spot — meant that apple had to be removed immediately. (You could use it for some other purpose, but you couldn’t leave it to contaminate others.)

So, anyone who says “just a few rotten apples,” meaning “there’s no big problem” simply doesn’t understand the metaphor.

I don’t know how anyone can watch the slow death of George Floyd at the hands of four policemen and not admit that our police need to be better trained, and more accountable to civilian review boards. How many “excessive use of force” complaints have to accumulate before the officer is removed from public contact and given better training?  I have served on juries several times, and each time I was inspired by how hard a disparate *** group of people — none of whom wanted to be there — strove to render a fair judgment. If civilians can be trusted to do justice in civil and criminal trials, they can be trusted to do justice to our peace officers, most of whom are routinely asked to work overtime to the point of exhaustion, often for pay that doesn’t even allow them to live in the community they police. American police rarely get training in de-escalating a bad situation. They are expected to deal with the mentally ill — but without medical training. They are expected to resolve domestic disputes — but without special training. This is not necessarily the case in other countries. Heavily armed police are also not the norm everywhere. Of course, the United States has more guns than citizens — no wonder our police have to wear bulletproof vests.

But there is growing evidence that Black and other non- white Americans are more likely to end up dead after a police encounter than I am. And their lives matter. We are “equal under the law.” I’m a non-religious person living in a secular country, but passages of the Bible leap into my mind as often as passages of Shakespeare. Every time I see a photo of a group “taking a knee” in support of Black Lives Matter, I half expect the photo to be captioned “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” ****

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Peaceable assembly, seeking redress for grievances — that’s as American as…. Apple pie.

Watercolor by Susan Grote.


** I believe I first read this in a book from the library — and no search has enabled me to find it again! I think it was a book written, by a woman then in her eighties, about ordinary life in the early 20th century. She explained things like how they dried laundry indoors in wet winter weather. One memory was that she would be scolded as a lazy and wasteful girl if she ever broke open an egg for cooking and neglected to run her finger around inside the shell to get every last drop of albumin out of it. I, too, was taught to do that — and only broke the habit when American eggs began to harbor salmonella.

*** American juries are not diverse enough, but we can fix that….

**** I studied the Douay-Rheims Bible rather than the King James translation, which uses the word “righteousness” instead of “justice”.


Filed under 1950s-1960s, Musings

33 responses to “Thinking About Bad Apples

  1. FYI, it’s correctly translated either way. In Hebrew, Justice and Righteousness are the same word, as is “charity.” They are synonyms, in that all three mean “Doing the right thing.”

    • Thank you. It’s interesting that Spike Lee made a very good movie about race relations (back in 1989) called “Do the Right Thing.” Thirty years ago — and we’re still having trouble with the concept….

      • Oh yes, I saw it when it came out. Really good film.

        I think my kids’ generation — people in their teens right now — will finally get it right. They seem, at least most of them, to have no patience for bigotry of any kind. Here’s hoping.

  2. Mary Still

    What a wonderful post! Many Thanks! Mary


  3. Wow, great post, thanks….
    bonnie in provence

  4. We have this expression in Dutch: “he/she is a rotten apple” or “it only takes one rotten apple”, which means that one bad person can make a whole group “rotten”. It’s so true. Your article is very impressive, thank you for writing it and sharing it with us.

  5. Z

    Thanks for taking a stand on this Susan.

  6. Allison Sommers

    Brava. Beautifully observed and expressed.

  7. Beautiful Lace

    Dear Susan,
    Excellent! Also, I’m overjoyed that you studied the Douay-Rheims Bible for that verse. If you are looking for accurate translations of the Bible, go to the Douay-Rheims Bible! It is the purest translation, something most don’t know.

    • Well, in 10 years of Roman Catholic schooling (through college) it’s nice to have an outside opinion! I appreciated Lisa’s information that “justice,” “righteousness,” and “charity” are equivalent term, too.

  8. catniphill

    If I wanted to follow a political blog, I’d choose a political blog. If this is the direction you’re taking now, I’m out.

    • bonnie groves

      out you go then
      bonnie in provence

    • zuleikaa

      Is it political to want all people to have the same rights? To be able to walk down a street without fear? Those are human rights, not political rights, and if you think that anyone deserves to die just because of the shade of their skin you don’t understand your laws, your constitution, or simple morality.

    • I’m sorry you were disappointed. I know how important it is to have a few places to go where we can get away from the endless barrage of bad news we’re living with, and the past is one of those refuges. I do intend to keep sharing my trove of vintage fashion images. But researching the past sometimes illuminates the present. For example, I only learned recently that textile workers in England in the 1860s faced starvation rather than work on American cotton picked by slaves. It’s easy for me to be an idealist — I have a roof over my head and food on my table. The least I can do is acknowledge the courage of others.
      P.S. My own refuge from the news is YouTube videos of narrowboats cruising “England’s green and pleasant land.”

      • Thank you for the canal boat link! I have done a canal boat trip here in France and would love to do a narrowboat in England. Also Prunella Scales is (was) one of my favorites, I believe she has died, she had Alzheimers. Her “Basil, Basil” and “oh, I know” were priceless.
        bonnie in provence

      • Watching her — age 83 — hopping on and off moving narrow-boats is inspiring. We saw her on stage a few times; once, she starred in two one-act plays, first as actress Coral Browne, then as Queen Elizabeth II. At the curtain calls, a woman seated behind us said, “Why didn’t that woman from the first play take a curtain call? She was so good!” She didn’t realize that Prunella Scales had played both parts — brilliantly. The Wests also sailed some canals in France. I also enjoy narrow-boaters “Silver Foxes”. They do lovely work with a drone, so you can see the scenery from above and gliding past the boat. Swans everywhere! Cruising the Cut is another YouTube channel I watch. Literally armchair travel….

      • Oops. YouTube channel with drone views is Foxes Afloat; their boat is called Silver Fox. I had no idea Yorkshire could be so pretty — at least on a sunny day.

      • She has Alzheimers but has not passed yet (had to go look her up). She’s Sam West’s mom!

      • Wow, yes, did not realize Sam West was Prunella’s son, just didn’t put it together. He was brilliant as Sir Anthony Blune in The Crown, am I right?
        bonnie in provence

      • Yes how nice to have a family of actors for three generations or maybe more. The play I remembered Prunella Scales in, where she played Elizabeth II, was about Anthony Blunt. The point was the extent to which she knew or guessed that he was a spy. A kind of intellectual tennis match. It was like she was subtly trying to warn him, (they were discussing a painting that might be a fake) but he thought he was smarter than she was. Ha!

    • As long as this is Susan’s blog, she gets to decide on the content.

      • I was quite sincere about costume history being a refuge when the current news cycle becomes so depressing/infuriating that we need to take a break by thinking about something else for a while. So I understand that this reader was disappointed. But it’s also true that historical events are part of the story of fashion: e.g., the cotton gin and the expansion of slavery; you start with textile history and wind up learning about the American Civil War! (And another lesson about unintended consequences….)

      • Yes, no kidding. We don’t dictate her content!
        bonnie in provence

  9. Politics are everywhere. I think the difference has been that we can listen to each other and talk about our political differences. When we can’t, when they are so intractable and vast, then clearly it’s not just politics but real life problems that politics aren’t useful to solve. A forest fire is not a political act. A pandemic is not a political act. It doesn’t see ‘sides of an argument’, it IS the argument. When good cops find themselves having to defend bad cops behavior, in some warped sense of solidarity ‘us vs them’, they have lost the idea of what is worth defending. The murder of George Floyd, and I don’t you can call it anything else, isn’t a left/right thing. It’s not ideology, it’s murder.
    I hope all of you have a fire free weekend. Stay inside and sew!

  10. So beautifully put!

    A little about apples: I grew up in a 19th century farmhouse that still had many of the original fruit trees on the property. For years I tried to replicate my grandmother’s fried apple pies without success. On day it dawned on me that she always used the heirloom June apples from our tree.

    • Ah, heirloom apples! My best friend has an old apple tree in her yard and there is no applesauce like hers, even if the store label says ” Gravenstein.” In northern California we have the Gravenstein highway, whose gutters are filled with windfall apples in fall. I hear they are good for cider…. Once, hiking in England, I called in at a pub and asked for cider. The barmaid warned me it was made from windfall “scrumpy” (pronounced “scroompy”) apples and was cloudy with bits of apple still in it: I’ve never had better !

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