Anti-Know-Nothings and Great Unknowns

The bittersweet lure of culinary nostalgia

A number of both real and imagined ghost orchards populate Helen Humphreys’ beautiful, evocative book, The Ghost Orchard: The Hidden History of the Apple in North America. The most unsettling of these has to be the “glossary of lost apples” at the end of the book. Little more than an alphabetical list and brief description of a few dozen “now extinct” apple varieties, the glossary leaves the reader feeling genuinely haunted. Even just the names—Anti-Know-Nothing, Frazier’s Hard Skin, Great Unknown, Keep Forever, Republican Pippin—makes these untasteable apples appear on the page like spectres of a lost world, of a time when our industrial food system hadn’t yet reduced the number of commercial apple varieties from nearly 17,000 to the fewer than 100 grown today.

This ghost orchard glossary perhaps best captures the tone of a book that opens with the line: “Last fall I was eating wild apples, and a close...