Every Apple You Eat Took Years and Years to Make

Every Apple You Eat Took Years and Years to Make

“Feel free to spit.”

During apple season, Susan Brown can bite into hundreds of apples a day. She walks through her orchards, along rows containing hundreds of trees, biting and spitting, biting and spitting. Each year, she and her technician, Kevin Maloney, plant thousands upon thousands of apple seeds, and never know exactly what the fruit of the grown trees will taste like.

Browsing through this experimental orchard, Brown likes to say, is like digging through a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, the magical Harry Potter jelly beans that can taste of anything from blueberry and banana to vomit and earwax. In a similar way, her apples might taste of cinnamon, green pepper, or diesel fuel. And there’s no way to know until she bites into one. There’s an apple, for instance, that tastes rather strongly of anise, which can be a delightful or nasty surprise, depending on your tastes.

As the head of the apple-breeding program at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, one of the largest apple-breeding programs in the world, Brown is searching for fruit that no one has ever seen or tasted before—beautiful apples that can withstand the dangers of the field, that grow uniform and large, that store well, that can be shipped easily to grocery stores, that have deep and satisfying flavors, and that are, above all, crisp and juicy, the two qualities consumers most desire. By harnessing the criss-cross power of genetic variation, she can create new apples, better than any already for sale.

But that means corralling the tremendous genetic diversity that apple seeds hold. “Apples just want to be different,” she says. Breeding them means working at a large scale—decades of growing thousands of trees and tasting thousands of apples—just to find and capture that one better variety of fruit.