What's With All That Jazz?

The editor of the AOL Patch in my community, Lizzie Hedrick, was so effusive about a particular type of apple in a conversation recently that I was reminded of a poem by Ted Joans that I'd heard long ago: "Jazz is my religion, and it alone do I dig."

Hedrick is a self-confessed "apple snob" who gets a little panicky every fall when local apples go out of season. She likes Braeburns all right, but they can get mealy at this time of year, and there's only so many Honeycrisps to be devoured. The palate demands variety.

Last fall, Hedrick discovered the Jazz in a "let's-buy-two-of everything-and-see-what's-fresh" expedition to the Stop & Shop. She has now joined the growing band of Jazz enthusiasts. "They're crunchy and delicious," she avers.



Just take a look at the Jazz apple Twitter page for further evidence of a growing and devoted fan base: "Jazz apples = nature's candy"; "it was bloody crunchy. Im mad for jazz apples"; "Jazz apples never fail." Facebook, too, of course.

After stumbling across some Jazz myself recently, I felt I had to investigate. For starters, what's with the name? Granny Smith, it's not.

Precisely, says David Nelley, who has guided the North American marketing strategy for Jazz since its first commercial harvest in Washington about a half dozen years ago. Jazz is part of a new wave of apples coming out of universities and research labs that are trademarked, and represent an effort to market produce as effectively as any other valuable brand.

"If we're going to go through all of these development costs, we don't want it to become the next Granny Smith, able to be planted by anybody," Nelley says. The North American growers have one guiding mandate, says the category director for apples, pears and pineapple for The Oppenheimer Group, a global produce marketer and distributor based in Vancouver B.C. "They never want anyone to meet a Jazz apple they don't like."

Because the 34 growers in Washington are able to control where Jazz apples are planted, packed (just three locations in Washington at present) and graded, there's a consistency in the gustatory experience that people don't usually get from produce.

"It's a test by growers to break that age-old agricultural commodity cycle" Nelley says, "where growers and farmers run around like a herd of buffalos and they turn a crop from something that's making good money into a commodity overnight."

When I asked if other traditional apple-growing regions such as New York were in the picture for the future, given growing locavore leanings among foodies, Nelley said perhaps. But it appears that we New Yorkers will have to do something about the tendency of our Malus domestica to grow slightly smaller first.

The Jazz was originally developed in New Zealand over the course of 10 to 15 years by researchers who took pollen from Royal Galas, which are sweet, and painted it on the flower of Braeburns, which store well. Its labels also carry the ENZA brand name of the former New Zealand Apple & Pear Marketing Board.

Just when the apple growing/marketing season is ending in the U.S., it's starting up in New Zealand, which means that Jazz are available year-round. It's only in the past few years, however, that they've moved from the Fairways and Whole Foods Markets and into the Krogers.

When Jazz was introduced in those higher-end stores, "kiwi farmers with funny accents" were flown over to man the cutting boards and break the ice with the "old ladies with blue rinse, no offense" crowd. Then, going after a younger demo, college students started ambushing folks in parking lots with free samples. Jazz also sponsors a women's cycling team in the U.S.

Jazz apples may cost a bit more than, say, a bag of Red Delicious, which controls about 41% of the U.S. market, but Nelley sees them as part of a growing trend of people indulging in "affordable luxuries." And it also ties into the growing food awareness in North America, he says. "People want something that's good for you, but also tasty. There are a lot of apples out there, but I notice that people often talk about Jazz on Twitter with the hashtag 'nomoremushy apples.'"

Alas, there aren't nearly as many apples out there as there used to be, all due respect to the current attempts to bring uniformity and branding to the category. In the New York Times yesterday, Anne Raver wrote a fascinating profile of Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr., a retired Army lieutenant colonel in his late 70s who is on a one-man mission to graft and preserve heirloom apple trees. Calhoun has more than 300 varieties growing on his small farm in North Carolina. But that's a mere pittance of the 16,000 varieties that grew in this country in the late 19th century. About 3,000 remain today.

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