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Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and…

Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and the Complicated Art of Making a… (edition 2019)

by Andy Brennan (Author)

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Title:Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and the Complicated Art of Making a Living
Authors:Andy Brennan (Author)
Info:Chelsea Green Publishing (2019), 288 pages

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Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and the Complicated Art of Making a Living by Andy Brennan

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Andy Brennan becomes a maniac before your eyes. In Uncultivated, he morphs from introverted struggling artist to manic spokesman for marginal, but historically fulfilling and naturally satisfying apple ciders. Not the canned ones, not the ones made from industrial apples and processes. He likens those to apple spritzers. No, what’s writing about is naturally fermented ciders made from wild apples in upstate New York.

The book is all over the place. It constantly switches from the issues and heroes of cidering, to personal milestones in his life, to historical facts about his local area, to personal issues and development as a farmer and neighbor, to the mechanics of making a living, and to the state of the world of agriculture. And all of it goes to support his increasingly strident view of working within nature and not for the most potential dollars. “With each passing year I seem to be getting more and more insane with my stubbornness,” he freely admits late in the book.

It’s a real rollercoaster of a tale. In the middle of the book, in the midst of otherwise sane discourse, Brennan suddenly erupts, or perhaps blooms, with a rant on cider:

“It’s the tannins! You might try to spit it out but it’s too late. The apple has already released a chalky, woody quality that acts like the little people of Gulliver’s Travels tying down a tingling sensation to the front end of your mouth like a 9-volt battery. Shit, this actually hurts! you unexpectedly say to yourself. You’re used to juicy apples exploding in your mouth before swiftly falling off the back waterslide, but this apple is setting up shop like a sadistic dentist and you’re alarmed at what the Novocain precludes. Maybe the bitterness means the apple is poisonous. Maybe Denniston Red [Brennan’s favorite tree] was the model for Snow White’s witchy queen after all. Maybe this is why the fruit is forbidden? Doomed, you just tasted a cider apple.” 148

His cider is rated top notch. It is used by highly-rated Manhattan eateries. He spent a lot of time as a media star, hyping the value of apple cider, how it is made, its place in US history, and what to look for in a cider. He only makes 1500 gallons a year, because that’s all he and his wife Polly can handle without driving themselves to drink. He forages for wild apples, and neighbors dump bags and barrels of them in his driveway, because they are no good to eat.

Brennan divides the apple world into two. The vast majority are industrially raised, exact clones of thin skinned, large, juicy fruit for commercial production. Wild apples are small, thick skinned, mottled, rusted, dirty, dry and chewy. He says they are meant for animals, not humans. Animals take them and spread the five or ten seeds in each one. That is the purpose of an apple. Apples for humans are artificial constructs. But the wild ones make apparently unbelievable ciders.

Ciders have a wide range of flavors and tastes, subtleties and character. Like the trees they come from, each one is an individual personality. Brennan attributes anthropomorphic characterizations to wild apple trees according to their fruit, their location, their shape, size and habits. He gives them names. Apple trees have DNA three times as dense as human DNA, and so every offspring is different from its parent, like human children. Planting the seed of an apple you like will almost certainly not give you a tree with more of the same fruit. Only cutting and grafting branches onto other rootstock will do that. And that is the essence of the modern orchard, which Brennan detests.

There is a lot of repetition in Uncultivated, as Brennan seeks to hammer certain points home. He mentions far too many times how introverted he is, so he refuses to have a store or tastings at his farm. Yet he gives lectures, addresses crowds, appears in all manner of media and deals with total strangers at farmers markets within about 90 minutes of his home. His writing is bold, brassy and assertive, very unlike introverts. Methinks he doth protest too much.

There is lots to love about the book. It even has a climax of sorts, when he tries to take delivery of a shipment of bottles for the current crop. It is a wonderfully unexpected story of struggle that I won’t spoil for you. All this to say by the end of Uncultivated, readers know more about Andy Brennan than his old neighbors ever did in Brooklyn where he largely failed to become a recognized artist, and probably more than most of his neighbors in Wurtsboro in the Catskills know about him today.

The writing is firm, informative and entertaining. Brennan gives lots of credit to others: experts, farmers, neighbors, and all kinds of help. Both requested and serendipitous. It is a rocky (literally) trip to a state of contentment and mastery of an age-old, remarkably simple process he has chosen for his life. Brennan has backfilled with both local and apple history, which overlap continuously. It is fine entertainment with a serious message.

David Wineberg ( )
1 vote DavidWineberg | May 5, 2019 |
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