Symbolically, apples slice both ways. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but one that goes rotten can spoil the whole barrel. Kids who bob for apples at Halloween parties are warned not to accept them while trick-or-treating lest razor blades lurk inside. Even apple picking, that evocation of harvest-time fun, now connotes the snatching of iPhones and other desirable Apple devices. When it comes to apples, we take the good with the bad.
Steve Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson that a fruitarian diet had inspired him to pick the name Apple for the computer company he and two buddies founded in 1976. Apple Inc. transformed computing and communications through a host of industry-changing innovations, including its early (1983) adoption of a graphical user interface for home computers and such inventions as the iPod MP3 music player (introduced in 2001), iPhone smartphone (2007) and iPad tablet (2010). Apple Inc. exemplifies American technical ingenuity, and it wasn’t the first apple to do so. The Red Delicious is also an American invention, but this apple represents a regime of sameness—Apple Inc.’s “Think Different” slogan, which appeared in ads from 1997 through 2002, does not apply. Discovered in an Iowa orchard in the 1870s (and originally named the Hawkeye), the Red Delicious transformed its industry, and American dietary habits, though not for the better. The goal of apple breeders was to create a uniformly attractive, durable product, and by the 1960s Red Delicious apples, one as perfect-looking as the next, dominated supermarket produce bins. Ironically, these apples were often as bland and mealy as they were gorgeous, and Americans’ taste for apples began to sour.
When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in January 2007, images of the device projected on the big screen behind him showed the name John Appleseed in his contact list. Curious Jobs-watchers immediately began searching for an Apple Inc. employee of that name but could find no such person. It turned out that this fictional Appleseed (whose name later also appeared in ads and tutorials for Apple products) was Jobs’s sly reference to an earlier American of similarly mythic stature.
Jobs and the historical Johnny Appleseed had a number of things in common besides spreading Apples/apples across the land. Both men were vegetarians and dressed simply: the billionaire Jobs in his trademark black cotton turtleneck, Levis and sneakers; Appleseed—despite the wealth he accumulated from his nursery business—in whatever old clothes were handed him, as well as a tin cap that purportedly also served as his campfire cooking pot. And following a huckster tradition that’s as American as apple pie, both were evangelists as well as entrepreneurs. Jobs preached a this-world gospel of user-friendliness and simple, functional, beautiful design. Appleseed promulgated the otherworldly gospel of the Swedenborgian Church, stressing heavenly reward for earthly privation.
Johnny Appleseed, born in Massachusetts as John Chapman, wasn’t a blithe scatterer of apple seeds but a canny horticulturist who raised and sold young trees to settlers throughout a large swathe of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois that in his day was the American frontier. His trees generally didn’t produce pretty or even tasty apples. Cultivated eating and cooking apples—such as Red Delicious, McIntosh and Granny Smith—originate naturally, but their qualities are maintained through the grafting of the source tree’s branches onto other apple trees’ trunks. Chapman disapproved of grafting, and the trees he planted from seed, as food writer Michael Pollan explains in The Botany of Desire (2001), for the most part yielded fruit that was ugly to the eye and sour to the taste. But Chapman’s customers didn’t mind, for they had no intention of munching those apples. Instead, they fermented the juice to make hard cider (sometimes then distilling the cider to make the spirit applejack), and in their boozy gratitude made Chapman into something of a saint. And in a way he was: a disheveled, barefoot, ascetic, celibate, wandering eccentric whose reputation for befriending animals could vie with St. Francis’s.
Disney’s wholesome cartoon characters are generally much less compelling than the studio’s villains: Sleeping Beauty is a yawn compared to her nemesis, the evil fairy Maleficent; the dalmatian Pongo’s bark can’t compete with fur-loving Cruella de Vil’s bite. There’s likewise no contest when you compare the folk hero of Disney’s animated short The Legend of Johnny Appleseed (originally a segment of the 1948 film Melody Time) to another apple-toting Disney character, Queen Grimhilde—the wicked-to-the-core monarch of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Johnny, encouraged by an avuncular, coonskin-cap-wearing angel, brings healthful, toothsome apples—and Bible-based religion—to the pioneers. (There’s scant mention of cider in Disney’s whitewashed version of the tale and none whatsoever of the historical Appleseed’s unorthodox Swedenborgian faith.) Queen Grimhilde, egged on by her own supreme vanity and disguised as a snaggle-toothed old hag, poisons her innocent and trusting stepdaughter with a gleaming red apple that, like the queen herself, is pure rottenness inside. This Brothers Grimm tale was darkly updated in Snow White and the Hunstman (2012), and although the action-fantasy film’s Snow White (Kristen Stewart) takes up sword and shield, it’s still a delicious-looking apple that brings her low.
The apple is an emblem of health, but is eating the pomaceous fruit actually good for you? Research says yes. One extensive Dutch study found a strong correlation between eating apples and pears and a greatly reduced risk of stroke. Researchers aren’t sure why these white-fleshed fruits have that salubrious effect but propose their high fiber content and the anti-inflammatory compounds they contain as possible causes. Despite such data, the apples that fill most supermarket produce bins are more forbidden fruit than health food. Of all produce, apples are most likely to be contaminated with pesticides. In 2012 the Environmental Working Group ranked apples number one on its annual “Dirty Dozen” list, revealing that 98 percent of apples tested by the USDA had pesticide residues. That shocking statistic aside, it’s possible that apples grown in the U.S. today are less potentially poisonous than those produced in the 1980s, when American orchardists typically sprayed apples with the carcinogenic chemical daminozide, also known as Alar. The “Alar scare,” provoked in 1989 by a CBS 60 Minutes report on the chemical’s dangers, caused apple sales to plummet. To this day, consumers armed with knowledge about food production think twice before plucking an apple.
In 2012 New York City experienced a spike in crime; its cause was the theft of portable Apple Inc. products, an activity soon dubbed “apple picking.” In the popular imagination, it was an apple—as enticing and irresistible as an iPhone—that brought about Eve and Adam’s fall. But the Bible doesn’t specify what kind of fruit the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil produced, and candidates range from figs to pomegranates. The Christian connection between the apple and the first couple’s transgression may date from the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin, given the close similarity between the Latin words for apple (mālum) and evil (mălum), but humanity’s ambivalence over apples’ moral character is age-old. In Greek mythology, golden apples play many roles: They bestow immortality in the tales of Hercules; they are instruments of trickery, distracting the great runner Atalanta during a footrace; and they even touch off the Trojan War when Paris judges Aphrodite the most beautiful of the goddesses and presents her with the golden apple provided by Eris, the goddess of discord. Apples, it seems, are symbolically overdetermined—as good and as bad as those who reach for them.