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.
** 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”.