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From slabside to King Luscious, heirloom apples have a story to tell

Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche Engelhardt is shown with Lee Calhoun. Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche Engelhardt is shown with Lee Calhoun.

As thousands of local folks and tourists celebrate apples in Hendersonville this weekend, they’ll be adding to a North Carolina heritage that goes back generations.

All over the state, hidden among the big orchards of the well-known honeycrisps, jonagolds and Granny Smiths, there are scores of apple varieties you’ll have a hard time finding on a store shelf. And every one of them has a story to tell.

There’s the slabside apple, hailing from Old Fort, with a mild and sweet flavor, the Bryson’s Seedling from Jackson County, long thought extinct but rediscovered in 2002, and the wonderfully named King Luscious, found right here in Hendersonville. It is, of course, juicy and crisp.

I grew up in Hendersonville, so I thought I knew all about apples. But last spring, I worked with a group of students at UNC at Chapel Hill  to catalog the remarkable papers of Lee Calhoun, and I realized just how close we came to losing our North Carolina apples. Calhoun is a proud Tar Heel who has spent the last several decades scouring the southeast for heirloom apples to graft and save. When he began, he thought there might be 300 or 400 southern varietals.

Calhoun did much of his detective work the old-fashioned way, driving back roads and knocking on screen doors to find old trees and the people who might know their history. He put out the call through local newspapers and electric company newsletters, hoping to reach people in the remote corners of North Carolina and beyond. By the time Calhoun published his book — Old Southern Apples —he had found traces of 1,800 different southern apples.

The important thing to know about apples is that if you lose the story of the tree, you lose the apple. An apple seed doesn’t produce the same kind of tree — you need a graft from the original. So we have to remember the origin stories, where the apple came from, to save the apple. And Calhoun wanted to save as many as he could. He drove all over the region collecting twigs and recording stories, creating a mountain of records in the process.

When Lee’s book was published, people started to write letters to him. They included hand-drawn maps and photographs of their treasured trees. They described their family’s or their community’s connections to the tree. They traced the nurseries and the local grafters where the tree originated. They documented their apple trees’ stories. They saved their apples.

Lee kept everything people sent him. Calhoun’s story has been shared all over the country, but his records had never been collected and organized. ““I had all of this stuff and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it,” he said in a UNC news article earlier this year. “This has been our life’s work for my wife, Edith, and me for 40 years.”

All of that material is now part of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection, digitized at Wilson Library and available to all. Family histories and apple histories unfold on the same pages, typed out in fading ink or written in neat cursive. My students and I spent the semester paging through hundreds of letters that Lee received over the years, each one sharing the unique story of an apple and the people that produced it. 

“There is an apple tree on my great grandfather’s land at least 100 years old,” wrote Ed Traywick from Marshville, North Carolina. “We always called it a “Carolina Keeper,” because it keeps so well. I have never tasted an apple that even comes close to it in flavor and it gets better with age.”

I’m particularly proud of the recipes my students pulled out of Calhoun’s wonderful records, including instructions from an 1870 North Carolina cookbook for a “green apple pie.” It ends with a note of advice that might rankle those who prefer cold buttermilk with their apples: “Always have sweet milk to drink with apple pie. 

At a time most people get their apples from anonymous bins in the grocery store, grown in commercial operations far away and preserved in storage for months, there’s something thrilling about these tales of individual grafting and tending. It makes the world a bigger, more interesting place. I love reading arguments that go back more than a century over which variety makes the best apple butter or tastes the sweetest after baking.

And I love that apples remind us to listen to each other’s stories. The life of that gnarled apple tree standing at the edge of a North Carolina field could depend on it.

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Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche Engelhardt, a 1988 graduate of Hendersonville High School, is the John Shelton Reed Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. After graduating from Duke in 1992, she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from Emory University. Her most recent book project is the forthcoming The Food We Eat, The Stories We Tell: Contemporary Appalachian Tables (2019). Her other books include The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South (2013, co-edited with John T. Edge and Ted Ownby),  A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food (2011), Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket (2009), Beyond Hill and Hollow: Original Readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies (2005), The Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature (2003), and The Power and the Glory: An Appalachian Novel (2003, a reprint of a 1910 novel by Grace MacGowan Cooke).