Joe has his hands in his pockets, rocking heel to toe gazing into a crate of Gravenstein apples. Barbara Walker, who operates the Walker Apples’ booth, listens to Joe with full attention whilst her arms move like an octopus, weighing and bagging apples, making change, and nodding to other customers. Joe is a 70-year-old gent in a collared shirt, with spare pens in his pocket. He picks up a green Gravenstein apple, turns it over in his working man’s hands like a crystal ball as his hat brim dips and shades his face.
Gravenstein apple tree at Hale Ranch in Sebastopol, CA
“In the 50s, I took eight of these apples back to Mississippi. They were so good we planted 20 acres. I got the apples when I was visiting a railroad man I’d met at his home in Sebastopol, California. His daughter was 13 and I said I’d come back and marry her when she was grown up.” He looks up. “You know, the way you might talk to a kid and not really think about it. I went on to join the military. Chopper pilot. Got shot. That’s when I went back home to Mississippi. I remember recovering among those apple trees ”¦ Well Jackie, the girl from Sebastopol, was in college then, she got in touch with me and called me out on my promise. Well, we got married and have two boys, grown-ups now.”
Author Aldous Huxley once said, “every man’s memory is his private literature” and during apple season in Sebastopol, CA you are likely to hear many a story related to the Gravenstein, the colorful bright green, light orange, and stripy red apples, now endangered, that grows so well here. The overflowing boxes at the farmer’s markets or the information table for the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium Project are gathering points that evoke recollections from people who spent some part of their childhoods in Sebastopol. The taste of these tart apples on hot summer days while wandering through orchards; wading through streams; riding bareback on horses, or running over the hills until the setting sun between two fingers held to the horizon told you it was time to go home.
The Gravenstein is renowned far and wide for its perfectly balanced flavor of tart and sweet. Many tell the remaining farmers that it is unequivocally their favorite for baking their favorite family recipes. Some folks recall with pride the era when a bounty of Gravensteins was made into applesauce for U.S. troops in WWII. And if someone tells you that a fruit-laden train ran down the middle of main street – they’d have to be an octogenarian at least. The P&SR Electric Railway once pulled the Pacific Fruit Express from Sonoma County orchards south to San Francisco. Today its long-abandoned tracks have been turned into a greenway trail for bikes and pedestrians.
Others ask, “Whatever happened to so-and-so’s farm?” In the early 1900s, Sonoma County had 11,000 acres of Gravenstein apples – but housing development and the growth of the wine industry has decimated the apple industry. Grapes and subdivisions now stand where mighty Gravenstein trees once stood. Now only a handful of farmers carry on in less than 800 acres of trees. In 2003, Slow Food Russian River nominated the Gravenstein apple for a Presidium project. A Presidia works with farmers and consumers to promote the consumption of a valued but endangered heirloom food. Coordinated by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, the Gravenstein project is staffed by 25 volunteers who work under the banner “Save the Gravenstein!” Their projects get the special short season apples into many corners of the community.
Walker Apples was one of many local growers that has kept on graving because the Presidium project has done such a good job of raising the apples’ profile and their price on the market. The Los Angeles Times recently profiled ranch patriarch Lee Walker and the plight of the Gravenstein.
When people wander up to a table of Gravensteins and share their memories of the apples of the past, they are never maudlin, but always buoyant and enthusiastic for their taste reunion.
If you would like to receive or send a box of this special apple to someone – The FruitGuys are now taking orders. The Gravenstein apple is the first of the fall apples, and the season is very short, so don’t wait.