Arkansas-Black Apples

Well after the early, rose-fleshed Pink Pearls and Thomas Jefferson’s dear Spitzenbergs, I was wrist-deep in a box of russeted Ashmead Kernels at the farmers market when a woman pressed up behind me.  “When are the Arkansas Blacks coming?” she inquired hopefully of Stan Devoto, grower of more than 50 apple varieties, some rare, some more common.  He suspected a couple weeks.  So each Saturday and Tuesday to come, as the firm Swaars, tart Sierra Beauties, and even the floral Mutsus came and went, I asked about them, too.  At least four others asked the same question, increasing the currency of this fall fruit with a seemingly cult-like following.

The day finally arrived—last Tuesday, to be precise—when I spotted a box mounding with deep burgundy orbs freckled with ivory specks.  A small zinc label erected at the back of the box proclaimed: “Arkansas Black.”  Behold!  I gathered several pounds of them, wanting to make sure I had enough specimens to study, while also insuring against the risk of a cameo—what if they were only available that one day, as had happened to other varieties this season?

Once at home, I giddily rinsed the apple and sat Elinor on my hip.  Then I took a bite.  Juice streamed down my chin and spattered onto her cherubic thigh, which was by now pumping up and down in effort to levitate her hands into the apple’s orbit.  But I could not give in to her, for I was getting to know some of the finest work nature has done in the past 150 years or so (and also because, despite her affection for raw apples, they make her choke).

To be sure, this is not an avant garde apple.  No, it is merely an apple done right.  A bite into the milky pale-yellow flesh begins with an audible crunch and a jolt of tannins.  And then comes an outpouring of juice that might rightly render pressed apple juice moot, but not before a fleeting hint of lemon slides in, trailed by honeyed sweetness.  Nature has conspired to combine beauty and flavor—a fruit in the truest sense.

Thought to have originated in Arkansas sometime between the 1840s to 1870s, when there were still roughly 16,000 varieties of apples available to Americans, the Arkansas Black has never been a commercial apple.  Even in its fledgling years, pomologists advised against planting it: “Unfortunately, the trees are so unproductive as to make the variety hardly worth planting, even for home use.”(1)  But fortunately for me—and now you—knowing the fruit’s merits, orchardists persevered, and this venerable apple has survived, albeit on a small scale.

My first pounds of Arkansas Blacks are now gone.  Though they were primarily victims of my afternoon snacking, Elinor ultimately prevailed, claiming a few for her roasted-apple sauce with cinnamon (combine roughly chopped apples and cinnamon with a 1/4” water in a covered baking dish at 350°F until soft, about 35 minutes; mash).  Their extraordinary firmness makes them good candidates for pies; roasting them shows off their sultry skin fittingly.

And, as for their namesake color, I can only relay that they are said to turn black after long periods of storage.  Having devoured them in short order, for now, I must be content to marvel at the idea of a genuinely black fruit.

Want to get to know Arkansas Blacks better?  Consider the following:

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(1) UP Hedrick, Cyclopedia of Hard Fruits (Macmillan 1922).

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  • Alana - Heirloom apples are such a treat!! There is a vendor at the Portland Farmers Market that has about 20 varieties — but not the Arkansas Black. Your story makes me want to find them and have my own taste of what you describe!!! Fantatic picture too!!November 5, 2010 – 10:28 amReplyCancel

  • Kimberley - I love heirloom apples more than probably any other type of heirloom fruit. They are so much more interesting and nuanced, flavor-wise. And I love crisp, dark apples especially. You’re inspiring me to get out of my Trader Joe’s/Whole Foods rut, where they never stray from five boring old apple varieties.November 7, 2010 – 10:39 pmReplyCancel

  • ApresFete - I don’t think I have seen these. Apples are my absolute favorite fruit and I just purchased 60 pounds for canning applesauce and apple butter. Wish I could have Elinor for a play date and she could be my taster. I would seek flapping limbs for approval.November 27, 2010 – 8:03 pmReplyCancel

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