Common core: The Big Apples of New York

Apple detail by A.L. DuBois

Ever wonder how New York City came to be known as the Big Apple? So did A. L. DuBois, a Stamford-based botanical artist, apple aficionado and born-and-bred I-heart-New-Yorker who addresses that question along with a myriad of other apple-related New York history in her newly published book, The Big Apples of New York.

The book features 25 full-page colorful botanical illustrations of heritage apples painted by DuBois. The images are presented on separate pages within the book, with an illustration on the front of a page and the information about the apple printed on the back, so that the illustration can be removed and framed without disturbing the main text, should one wish to do that.

Most of the apples that DuBois selected to illustrate originated in Hudson Valley orchards, she says, like the Jonathan, which hails from Woodstock, or the Northern Spy from Fishkill, and all of the illustrated apples are still available in the State of New York. The book contains a key for locating the apples shown in the illustrations, along with a list of 190 New York apple orchards that have heirloom apples. The Big Apples of New York also includes 19 historic and modern recipes using apples, some from the Culinary Institute of America.

DuBois begins her story in the Garden of Eden, chronicling the apple’s journey from Eve to the New World, but the heart of the book is its exploration of the longstanding connection between the apple and New York, especially in the Hudson Valley. The author notes that the majority of the historic sites in the Hudson Valley have apple orchards, which were profitable for the families living on those estates from Colonial times on; and she says that, up until the 1940s, the orchards in the Hudson Valley produced the largest quantity of apples in the world.

These days, New York State grows the most varieties of apples; there are an estimated 10,000 varieties worldwide, says DuBois, and still counting. Cornell University, through the efforts of professor Susan Brown, she adds, has just introduced two new varieties of apple that it has developed: the Ruby Frost and the Snapdragon. [If you’d like a taste of those brand new varieties, stop by Dressel Farms on Route 208 in New Paltz; (845) 255-0693, www.dresselfarms.com.] DuBois says that the Hudson Valley’s main contribution to the success of the apple in New York is the fact that the orchards here developed, over time, “the largest apple gene pool ever known.”

The inspiration for The Big Apples of New York came when DuBois came across a two-volume book published in 1920 about New York apples. When she realized that there hadn’t been another book about New York and apples since, her interest was sparked. “I just found it to be irresistible,” she says. “I like the word ‘why.’”

And about that question of where the expression “the Big Apple” originated? The first thing that DuBois wants people to know is that it’s a misconception that the phrase describes only the City of New York; “The entire State of New York is the Big Apple,” she says. The expression began in New Orleans, according to DuBois, as a code phrase among African Americans in pre-Civil War days, referring to work that could be found up north in New York’s apple orchards. With the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the emergence of jazz music, the wealthy elite of New York City who went to the clubs to hear the new music started to pick up the new terms, like “jazz” and “Big Apple.”

The Big Apples of New York is available at local bookstores, orchards and local historical sites. For more information, visit www.thebigapplesofnewyork.com.

Read more about local cuisine and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s DineHudsonValley.com or HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.

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