On Yeast

Apples don’t make true. That is, a seed of a Newtown Pippin—one of my favorite varieties, developed in nearby Queens in colonial days—won’t grow into a tree that produces Newtown Pippins. The resulting tree might produce Newtown Pippins, but it will also produce all sorts of other kinds of apples. The ur-apples way out in the ‘Stans are like that: trees with a variety of fruit, sweet, sour, large, small, crisp, mealy, red, green, etc. The reason we have orchards at all, that is, trees that produce a single kind of apply variety (and there are thousands, contrary to the sad limited choice seen in most supermarkets), is because the trees are grafted. We farm clones.

Which by the ol’ “commodius vicus of recirculation” brings us to Merlin Sheldrake and his very good book. In his discussion of the vital importance to us of yeasts, he writes that he scrumped some apples from a tree in the Cambridge Botanical Gardens that is a scion of a four-hundred year old apple at Isaac Newton’s home. It’s a clone of that apple tree, or it is? As Sheldrake writes, Newton nowhere tells the story we all know about watching an apple fall… There is a story that someone told in which he says Newton told him the apple story, but otherwise there’s no direct evidence an apple’s fall sparked Newton’s gravity-thinking. (Something must have hit him on the head to bring on his later alchemical craziness, though.)

This makes for a second famous and fabulous fallen apple, the first being the fruit Eve ate in the Bible. That fruit was definitely not an apple. “Apple” is either a bad translation or oft-repeated folk-myth substituting “apple” for “fruit.” There’s debate about what fruit it is from the tree of knowledge—pomegranate being one candidate—but it’s not an apple, a fruit unfamiliar to the Biblical Hebrews.

(Next, Virginia, I’ll have to break the news that Washington’s cherry tree is pure applesauce invented by mythographer-bullshitter Mason Locke “Parson” Weems.)

Anyway, Sheldrake crushed these Newton apples and let nature take its course with the juice. There’s yeast all over the place, of course, in the air, on apple skins. Some of these yeasts love sugar and while eating it convert it to alcohol. In short, Sheldrake made some cider, or, more appropriately, gave the yeasts an excellent opportunity to make apple juice into a bi-product that we happen to like to drink.

It turns out that there’s now a lot of thinking that Fertile Crescent agriculture, the beginning of civilization (or the beginning of the end, depending on how you look at it in light of our carbonization of the atmosphere), was because of the need for beer. Not bread, which of course is also measurably made pleasurable by yeasts. In other words, that people domesticated grains to ferment them. (Fertile Crescent gets all the credit, but this fermentation for intoxication was discovered independently all over the world.) The sociability of feasting and drinking may have been rather more important than accounting and taxes. (Ok, this last sentence is my hypothesis, as I’ve always grumbled, being at heart an anarchist, over the statist aspects we attribute to the origins of written language/civilization.)

4 Responses to “On Yeast”

  1. 1 Sherry Felix December 20, 2020 at 8:05 am

    I like that. Lets make merry first then think about recording things. Happy Holidays.

  2. 2 elwnyc December 20, 2020 at 3:20 pm

    Or depending on just how merry we make, maybe we should hope no one IS recording things.

    Happy holidays to you, Matthew.

  3. 3 Paul Lamb December 21, 2020 at 6:15 am

    I think Michael Pollan wrote about the apples that Johnny Appleseed was credited with spreading had nothing to do with the fruit itself and more to do with getting hard cider into the provinces.

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