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The Apple of His Eye

By Audrey Stallsmith

malus sativa

Comfort me with apples. . .

Song of Solomon 2:5

The aroma of apple pie is, they say, one of the most comforting odors known to man. It must be one of the most enticing too since, in the Language of Flowers, the apple stands for "temptation." That probably harks back to the story of Adam, Eve, and a wily serpent in the garden of Eden. After all, the Latin word for apple, malus, means "evil."

Later writers like Josephus also speak of apples of Sodom. Located on the shores of the Dead Sea where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood, they supposedly produced pomes that looked lovely but were, as Byron wrote, "all ashes to the taste." Those "apples", however, have been identified as a member of the nightshade family--solanum sodomeum.

Actually, the Genesis account never identifies Eden's forbidden fruit. And, although "apples" are mentioned elsewhere in scripture, Biblical scholars have concluded that the fruit indicated is, in fact, the apricot.

Malus did stir up a lot of trouble in mythology, though. According to one tale, at a wedding attended by all the gods and goddesses, a chap named Discord tossed a golden apple onto the table for "the most beautiful." You can see how this sly trouble-maker got his name!

Also called "pippin," the apple is an ancient fruit, with 27 varieties being cultivated in ancient Rome. Shakespeare's Shallow offers Falstaff "a last year's pippin of my own graffing, with a dish of caraways. . ." Roasted apples were traditionally served with a saucer of caraway seeds.

Those apples, along with bits of toast, also floated in the wassail bowl. Wassail is hot spiced ale, wine, or cider. It was sometimes called Lamb's Wool, not in reference to sheep but to the Irish la mas nbhal, pronounced "lammas-ool." The term refers to "the feast of apple-gathering" which occurred on All Hallow's Eve.

Perhaps that is why bobbing for apples is still a popular Halloween game. And those bits of browned bread floating in the wassail bowl might explain how the word "toast" came to be a synonym for drinking to a friend's health and prosperity.

British farmers once drank to their orchard trees as well as their friends on Christmas Eve. They placed hot cakes in the branches, toasted the trees three times, then flung cider over them. Finally, the women and children shouted while the men fired off guns. All of this is reminiscent of earlier heathen sacrifices made to Pomona, an Italian goddess of fruit.

Cider has always been a popular rural drink in this country too. Even during Prohibition, farmers were allowed to keep the hard stuff. Most of those approving the ban on liquor were country people, and the leaders of the movement could not afford to alienate their biggest supporters!

The farmers' wives also made apple butter in large kettles over open fires. They boiled tart pippins in cider to make a paste, then flavored it with allspice.

The apple was popular on the dessert table too. Tudor pies included ginger and saffron as well as the cinnamon common today.

Apples are still served with goose, pork, and cheese because the canny ancients knew that a side-dish of the fruit would improve their digestion of fatty foods. Although an apple is eighty-five percent water, it also contains acids beneficial to the stomach.

The old adage, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," has won support from modern research. The fruit will cure both constipation and diarrhea. For the latter, John Heinerman recommends eating grated pulp that has been allowed to sit at room temperature to darken for several hours. The oxidized pectin is, he says, similar to the main ingredient in Kaopectate. Strangely enough, though, too much apple juice can cause diarrhea in children.

In countries where cider is a common drink, gallstones are virtually eliminated because pectin reduces cholesterol levels. Apples are also anti-cancer and anti-viral and lower the blood pressure. Apple cider vinegar has been touted as a cure for everything from dandruff and body odor to athlete's foot.

We have no excuse for not "dosing" ourselves with the fruit, either, since there is a variety to suit every palate. As Gerard put it, "Apples do differ in greatnesse, forme, colour, and taste; some covered with a redde skinne, others yellow or greene. . .some are sweete of taste, or something soure; most be of a middle taste. . ." I love the tart and juicy Granny Smiths for snacking. Where apples are concerned, my taste runs more towards the "soure"!

Finally, there is nothing like an apple for topping off a country walk on a brilliant October day. As you bite into the crisp, succulent flesh, you can almost imagine yourself back in that garden planted by God. Or perhaps the truth is, as Chesterton suggests, that we are in Eden still and only our eyes have changed.

Malus sativa image is from Herbarium Blackwellianum by Elisabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.