A is for apple. In the beginning was the apple. In Hera’s orchard in the westernmost corner of the world, the trees grew golden apples which conferred immortality on those who ate them. It was one of Hercules’s labours to fetch an apple from the Gardens of the Hesperides; from these trees Eris, the goddess of discord, plucked the fruit which set in motion the train of events leading to the Trojan war. This conflict duly ushered in the end of the Heroic Age and the beginning of the Age of Iron. It is not just in the Bible that an appropriated apple signals man’s fall from grace.
The association of this most prosaic of fruits with sin and temptation has its roots in the story of Adam and Eve. But until the seventeenth century the word apple was used indiscriminately to mean any fruit; tomatoes were called ‘love-apples’ when they were first introduced to Europe and in Old English cucumbers are ‘earth-apples’ (eorþæppla). Latin uses the same word for both sin and apple (malum). This might go some way to explain the connection. Or, perhaps, as Foucault might have it, to show that they are irredeemably linked in our minds from time immemorial.
Malicious apples pop up in folklore and fairy tales, too. Think of the wicked stepmother in Snow White, tempting her innocent charge with a rosy-red apple dipped in poison. In Celtic lore, the apple that feeds Colne for a year also drives him mad with desire for fairyland. Apples are powerful: one bad one can spoil the proverbial barrel. They exert a legendary pull: apples never fall far from the tree. They can cause pandemonium: if we want chaos, we upset the apple cart.
But apples are also associated with wisdom; after all, it was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which Eve yanked the apple. Avalon, King Arthur’s fabled utopian kingdom, means ‘isle of apples.’ Watching an apple fall led Sir Isaac Newton to discover the existence of gravity. Apples are even central to America’s creation-myth. Jonny Appleseed, the nurseryman who planted apple trees throughout the north-eastern states, is a popular hero with visitor centres and museums dedicated to his memory. We give apples to our favourite teachers, leaving them gleaming and glossy on their desks. In Ireland, women throw apple skin over their shoulders to see the initial of the man they will marry spelled out on the floor.
These days, typing the word apple into a smartphone will see it immediately capitalised. The imagination-free algorithms of technology assume that in this consumer culture we must mean Apple, the computer giant. And, of course, the Apple logo has a bite taken out of it. The fruit of understanding may balance on our knees these days rather than dangling from a branch above our heads, but it will always be the apple.
This is the first in the series of a new online column, The Dictionary of Food