The Ideal Apple
“Outside the gate of the outer court there is a large garden of about four acres with a wall all round it. It is full of beautiful trees- pears, pomegranates, and the most delicious apples.” (Homer’s Odyssey)
Tales From Topographic Kitchens is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
When it comes to the food on our plate, the concept of a platonic ideal can be tantalising and frustrating. Take the apple. The qualities possessed by the perfect apple of my mind’s eye distinguish it from not only everything that is not an apple but every other kind of apple too. And that includes your platonic ideal. My perfect apple must be cold unless it is a Russet eaten with cheese. Then, and only then, can I forgive an apple served at room temperature despite the conventional advice that fruit is best when it is eaten that way. But I’ve been fortunate enough to eat apples straight from the tree, plucked from their cold, twiggy perch at dawn. That’s my bucolic ideal even though I am the least Darling Buds of May person ever to walk the earth.
What is the appley-est apple you can think of? Appearance, flavour, aroma, variety, where you ate it, who gave it to you, images and descriptions of apples in art and literature, your hunger and desire all play their part in a mysterious, hard-to-parse manner. Big, round apples whose sweet juices cause your salivary glands to contract. Their perfect scrunch and rosiness. How they fit into the palm of your hand. Glossy apples with the sheen of a mirror cake. Apples as sharp as Lillian Hellman’s tongue. Cider apples carrying a whisper of the controlled, sweet decay that lies in their future. Generously-girthed Bramleys whose flesh breaks down into creamy fluff the moment it encounters a bit of heat. The alchemic miracle of tart crab apples turned to jelly. Apples seemingly named after showgirls or the French teenager who ravished you on an exchange trip and others with names better suited to a Victorian ventriloquist’s dummy.
“I have memories of a Ladybird children's book which had illustrations of the biggest, juiciest, most apple-y of apples I have ever seen. I think they were being eaten by a parade of rabbits? Anyway, I've spent years trying to find this kind of apple in real-life, and it probably doesn't exist. But anyway, they looked like this,” I wrote on Instagram after a trip to Lavenham Farmer’s Market back in October 2020. At the market’s entrance was a stall piled high with crates and boxes of local apples. The Howgate Wonders stopped me in my tracks. Here’s the photo:
Time passed, and I continued to search for the book (and apples) of my memories. The rabbit’s apples were eaters and not cookers like the Howgate Wonders in my photo, but they looked very similar. Then earlier this year, Fiona Beckett recommended an Instagram account run by Helen Day, which posts daily images taken from vintage (and modern) Ladybird children’s books. (There’s a website too.) It is a soothing account, albeit very much of its time (Ladybird Books were not diverse!), and showcases the richly-detailed work of artists like Harry Wingfield, June Griffen-King and Martin Aitchison.
Underneath a post of an image from The Elves and the Shoemaker, I asked Helen if she might know what book the pictures in my head might be from. “Could it be The Green Umbrella,” she replied.
Ordering a secondhand copy saw me beset with apprehension. What if the reality didn’t match up to my memories? Would the images turn out to be an imperfect reflection of a platonic ideal nurtured for decades in my mind’s eye? I was bound to be disappointed. You can never really go back was the refrain in my head, but I have grandchildren and seeing them read the books that I once read to my children and, long ago, were read to me has been a joy. But seeing your old favourites through fresh eyes provides a level of protection that is absent when you are rereading just for yourself. I’ve been burned too often (rereading Jackie Collins causes me actual pain because yes, I love (d) her books, but so much of the isms of her age went unremarked-upon by teenaged-me). I don’t want my bunnies or platonically-ideal apples to turn out to be raging racists.
Or maybe I got the apple memory wrong? To some extent, I did. The Green Umbrella is about a rabbit called Timmy who lives in a burrow by the sea. Upon awakening, he declares it the perfect day for a swim and goes to rouse his many bunny cousins. Aunt Mary makes them a picnic basket filled with “sandwiches and slabs of cake, bread and jam and juicy apples”, or as Timmy says, “tons of apples- anyway, a pound at least!”
The rabbits paraded down the beach with a ball, not an apple; somehow, the two objects had become conflated in my mind, possibly because the ball was also green and red. Bluebell, Timmy’s sister, remained sat underneath the green beach umbrella, her jaws firmly clamped around the juiciest apple you ever did see. It is impossible to eat an apple quietly, and Bluebell isn’t even attempting to. You can hear the scrunch. As a small-jawed person, I am envious of a rabbit’s ability to get its jaws around really huge objects. It is quite something to see in real life.
The book is next to me as I write, and every time I glance at the image, my salivary glands pulsate. This is it. This is THE apple. It supercedes the one found by Susan in her Christmas stocking, possessed of a “sweet, sharp odour. She recognised it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong, white little teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” I even prefer it to Almanzo’s apple pie in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy. (“But best of all, Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and crumbly crust. He ate two big wedges of the pie.”) And it beats both Snow White’s red apple and the giant yellow-red apple being pulled in a cart by mice in Enid Blyton’s Poppy Story Book. I blame Snow White for my dislike of dark red apples. I never buy them.
I’d love to hear about your platonic apple ideals (or any other fruit for that matter). Comments are open.
(The Green Umbrella, story and illustrations by A. J. McGregor and verse by W. Perring is part of the Ladybird 401 series published by Wills & Hepworth Ltd.)