Ex-FBI investigator now in hot pursuit of Washington’s abandoned apples

The hundreds of apple varieties that have been found in recent years are stunning in their diversity and the window they open into the tastes and habits of the past.

STEPTOE, Whitman County — David Benscoter honed his craft as an investigator for the FBI and the U.S. Treasury, cornering corrupt politicians and tax evaders. The lost apple trees that he hunts down now are really not so different. People and things, he said, tend to hide in plain sight if you know how and where to look.

“It’s like a crime scene,” Benscoter, 62, said as he hiked down a slope toward a long-abandoned apple orchard planted in the late 1800s. “You have to establish that the trees existed and hope that there’s a paper trail to follow.”

About two-thirds of the $4 billion apple industry is now concentrated in Washington state — and 15 varieties, led by the Red Delicious, account for about 90 percent of the market. But the past looked, and tasted, much different: An estimated 17,000 varieties were grown in North America over the centuries, and about 13,000 are lost.

From New England through the Midwest and the South to Colorado and Washington, where small family farms were long anchored by an orchard, most apple trees died along with the farms around them as industrial-scale agriculture conquered American life a century ago.

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But some trees persisted. They faded into woods, or were absorbed by parks or other public lands. And the hundreds of varieties that have been found in recent years are stunning in their diversity and the window they open into the tastes and habits of the past.

Mother apples, for example, were good for making dessert. If you wanted less juice, you went for a Limber Twig. Aesthetic perfection and pretty names were once unimportant. The Rambo apple was described in one old guidebook as “speckled, with large rough dots.”

Apples are where food meets…

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