Written by Deirdra Stockmann, formerly of Slow Food Huron Valley (MI)
Sonoma County, California, is known the world around for wine. But for over 100 years the region was praised for its tree fruit, and its apples in particular. Arguably the most hallowed of the apples grown in the region is the Gravenstein. As one of the first apples to ripen in late summer, a fresh Gravenstein signals the coming of fall and marks the beginning of the autumn harvest.
Russian settlers brought the Gravenstein to California in the mid-19th century. Its genetic roots run even deeper into the soils of northern Europe where it was likely developed a century earlier. In and around Sebastapol, California, in the heart of Sonoma County, schools, streets, even a highway bear the name of the crisp, sweet apple. These landmarks are evidence of the Gravenstein’s prominent place in the (agri)cultural and culinary history of the region. (Learn more about the history here.)
At the turn of the 21st century, however, the Gravenstein was disappearing. Grapes, which also grow well in Coastal California, have become far more profitable than apples and other tree fruit. As David Masumoto’s memoir, Epitaph for a Peach, recounts, many farmers have been all but forced to plow under their generations-old orchards home to scores of varieties of apples, peaches, and plums to grow grapes, primarily for large-scale wine production.
Unwilling to accept the destruction of the orchards, Paula Shatkin and fellow volunteers at Slow Food Russian River stood up to defend the Gravenstein. In so doing, they defined what it means to be a co-producer in our food system. They harnessed the power of eaters to support Gravenstein growers and encourage diversity in the landscape and on our plates.
Saving the Gravenstein
Shatkin felt compelled to speak up on behalf of the Gravenstein and its growers because, in her words, “they are iconic here. Because they are such a visible part of our identity and our cultural history. Because our economy has in the past revolved around them. Because they are SO beautiful. And because we have to fight to preserve biodiversity.”
Shortly after Shatkin moved to Sebastapol, she attended a Slow Food Russian River meeting and proposed that they take action to save the Gravenstein. In empowering Slow Food chapter leader fashion, the leaders replied, “Why don’t you?” And she did.