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In Praise of the Apple Database


Maybe it has to do with the increasingly chaotic nature of the world, or maybe I’m more of a method-oriented person than I thought, but I’ve come to realize that I love a good database. I still use the Food Timeline with regularity, tirelessly scroll through the @depthsofwikipedia Instagram account, and recently, when my friend sent me a link to the apple and stonefruit cataloging database Orange Pippin, I set aside a good hour of my time to really settle in. A website that is “all about apples, pears, plums, and cherries – and orchards where they are grown” with over 700 apple varieties, 2,000 orchards, and user-inputted data and reviews of fruit varieties? This is a website that is — in short — extremely my shit.

I could while away an entire afternoon on Orange Pippin if I tried, just reading citizen reviews of varieties like the Falstaff apple: “In our experience this is also an apple which almost everyone really enjoys, from the conoisseur [sic] to those who profess not to like apples – it does everything you expect an apple to do.” An apple that does everything I expect it to do? Sounds good to me! I could read an untold number of reviews for Calville Blanc d’Hiver apples, especially when they say things like, “I see this as the most beautifully shaped of all apples.” Looking at the photo of the Calville Blanc d’Hiver apple, uploaded and watermarked by Orange Pippin, it is my prerogative as a registered user of the site to disagree. This is a really freaky looking apple, a fact that even the site’s administrators point out: “The ugly exterior of this mis-shapen apple belies a sublime interior.”

Did you know that a “sport” is a natural genetic mutation of a plant? You learn that very fast while browsing the Orange Pippin website — every fruit variety has its own page listing its parents, offspring, and sports. Before I started clicking around, I had no idea that the James Grieve apple is the parent of the Red Falstaff — but I do now. What will I do with this information? That has yet to reveal itself but I do know that it will one day be useful. Meanwhile the description for the Langton’s nonsuch apple read like a rare piece of database poetry: “The skin is pale yellow, spotted and marbled with orange, with numerous broken stripes and patches of brick-red on the sunny side.” Want to know what to do with your spare crabapples? According to Orange Pippin, the so-called gorgeous crab-apple is the right choice for crabapple jelly.

Orange Pippin’s forum also has some great insight on how and why the website works. Why, for example, does Orange Pippin keep a tree register? “First and foremost it gives hobby orchardists and orchard owners a way to enter data/notes about their trees for their own personal use and tracking of information,” Scott Chaussee, one of the two site administrators, wrote in a post. It can also be used to notify other tree owners whether a certain kind of tree is growing in your area. But most importantly, “By collecting blossom and harvest data on trees we have a wealth of data that we ultimately hope to build into an application that would benefit our users by knowing average times to harvest for various varieties/regions.” This is the stuff I live for: Fruit enthusiasts coming together, for free, to talk about their favorite fruit varieties. The site is run and maintained by two people — Richard Borrie, a database programmer in the UK, and Chaussee, an apple enthusiast in the US — who are both devoted apple eaters and database fans.

Orange Pippin isn’t just a website for browsing, though: It is genuinely helpful if you are at your local grocery store and wondering what to do with all these different varieties available to you. If you have the name of an apple and don’t know what it’s best used for, you can plug it into the database search and find both descriptions and reviews that will help you determine how best to use it. Did the prairie spy variety appear at your grocery store? Well, does Orange Pippin user Jill from Minnesota have news for you: “I have had the pleasure of enjoying these apples for 34 years. My mother in law planted it before my husband and I move on [sic] the farm. It is over 40 years old! Great for eating off the tree and best for baking.” Don’t even get me started on the plum and apricot reviews.

Orange Pippin is a website for apple and stonefruit obsessives, yes, but while I love a good piece of fruit, I’m not that obsessed with golden delicious. Instead, the draw of Orange Pippin is the thorough, documented, extremely detailed nature of the database; it’s a place you can return to time and time again when you want to kill an hour or two reading about fruit. It was Jan from Minnesota, describing a prairie spy apple, who best captured how I feel about Orange Pippin: “I loved it at first taste.”



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