Tom Brown Is On a Mission to Restore Appalachia's Rare and Lost Apples, and He's Found Over 1,000 to Date
When we first read an article in Atlas Obscura about Tom Brown, who was raised in Western North Carolina and currently resides in Clemmons, in the center of the state, we knew we had to learn more about his effort to save rare and lost apple varieties. As the profile of the retired chemical engineer explains, Brown has been traveling around Appalachia to find rare and lost heritage apples since the 1990s, and he's managed to save about 1,200 varieties to date, with his home apple orchard, Heritage Apples, showcasing some 700 of them.
"Finding old apples was a joy for me knowing I was helping me preserve our agriculture heritage," Brown told Southern Living of the origins of his passion. "Then once I really got started it was fun to see how many apple varieties I could find; the reinforcing people contacts added to this enjoyment," he continued, adding that even if people were first strangers to him, the people he contacted were very welcoming and helpful, making his visit to their homes a pleasure.
"Perhaps it had to do with the fact that I was inquiring about apples, a subject of interest to them and of which they took pride in. But I think that there was more to their friendly behavior than apples; it probably related to the fact that these were just good/decent people," he elaborated.
As he sleuths around Appalachia rescuing apples, Brown is all too aware that if he doesn't do this meaningful work, these apples may disappear forever. As writer Eric J. Wallace explains in the Atlas Obscura piece, "the people who hold clues about [the apples'] locations are typically in their 80s or 90s. Each year trees are lost to storms, development, beetles, and blights." Nevertheless, Brown maintains a positive attitude, driving an estimated 30,0000 miles a year and spending roughly three days a week on his quest for these apples.
With so many apple expeditions under his belt, it's hard for him to name a favorite, though he concedes that he "might say that my favorite apple-found is the Junaluska, due to its historical significance." (Lore has it that this apple type is named after a Cherokee Indians chief in the Smoky Mountains in the early 1800s, per Atlas Obscura.)
His most cherished recipe, meanwhile, is Big Mama's Apple Cake (featured on The Very Vera Show here). "Big Mama, Mamie Warrington Everett, was my wife's grandmother and she lived near Yazoo, Mississippi," he told us, noting that the honorific "Big Mama" referred to her as the family leader. With a delectable combination of tart apples, vanilla, allspice, cinnamon, and more, the cake is studded with walnuts or pecans and moist, chewy bliss. Like any good recipe, we're sure its connection to his family's roots makes it all the sweeter.
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But it's not baking the cakes or the pies or even biting into a crisp, fresh apple straight off the tree that gives Brown the true rush in his pomological calling. "In reality, I like the challenge of finding the old apples, that my favorite apple is one that I am searching for but have not found yet."