The beauty and bounty of the harvest season: A neurotic apple grower trims the fingernails of his pickers

Tis the season for apples. Red, yellow or green, tart or sweet, crunch into one you’ve plucked right off the branch, or cook them into sauce or pies. Delicious!

Although, if you ever needed an excuse, apples are really good for you. They keep the doctor away.

Still, Dr. Joe Schwarcz is not the kind of doc you want to shoo off. His PhD is in chemistry, and his thoughtful columns in the Montreal Gazette and elsewhere, and the books that have grown out of his writings, are crowd-pleasing tomes.

An Apple A Day: The Myths, Misconceptions And Truths About The Foods We Eat (2007) is a perfect read for the harvest season. And it begins with apples.

These days anyone with an Internet connection is receiving loopy messages about the horrors of chemicals in our food. Everyday foodstuffs, we are warned, are going to kill us because of the added toxic ingredients.

What a load of hooey. Schwarcz – or Dr. Joe, as he’s known by his fans – breaks it down. Apples contain hundreds of naturally occurring chemicals, including nail polish remover, embalming fluid, and cyanide.

It’s true. And it’s also true that eating apples is one the healthiest things you can do.

It’s all about dosage. Here’s an example: Salicylic acid will kill you. But take the tiny amount that’s found in a couple of Aspirin, and your headache is gone. (This is also why you should never give a child an adult Aspirin – the dose is too high, and your youngster will soon be in hospital, getting their stomach pumped.) Here’s another example: we need oxygen to live, but an atmosphere of pure, 100 per cent oxygen would suffocate us all. “Only the dosage makes the poison,” noted the Swiss-German physician Paracelsus. And that was 500 years ago.

The amount of cyanide in an apple is so tiny you’ll never notice. But the vitamins and antioxidants are so numerous they’ll help you live longer, and offer a better chance of fighting off cancer and Alzheimer’s. (Does the word cyanide still make you panic? Every single thing we eat is packed full of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of chemicals. You cannot avoid them.)

An Apple A Day is full of short, four-page works of wisdom, “separating sense from nonsense”. There are chapters on soy, fish oil, food dyes, the sulphites in wine, inositol pentakisphosphate, and other unpronounceables.

Read this book straight through, dip in here and there, or look for answers to specific questions via the contents or the index at back. (Dr. Joe is filed in non-fiction at 613.2.)

Now back to that delightful fruit. To have apples, we need apple growers. Carl Brenner gave up a lucrative career as a lawyer to start up an orchard in Washington State, growing Gala and Braeburn apples, as well as Bosc and Anjou pears. He became a member of the far-right John Birch Society at the age of 8, flies into rages at the merest unscheduled change, trusts no one, and is a control freak (he trims the pickers’ fingernails to keep them from catching on apple skins).

His sister, Marie Brenner, is a New York leftie and magazine writer for whom change on a dime is normal, and who lives “in a wind tunnel of paper.”

“The word always used for my brother in the family is ‘perplexing’. He is a difficult man.”

They despise each other. And of course, they love each other.

A day after he leaves following a brief visit, Marie accepts receipt of a special delivery package. The letter within from Carl announces that he is dying.

She cannot understand why he would not have told her in person. He cannot understand why she would demand that he brutally expose himself emotionally in front of her.

This memoir of their sibling relationship is titled Apples And Oranges: My Brother And Me, Lost And Found (2008). It is a beautifully written portrait of two complicated people struggling to find common ground before it’s too late. It’s penned by Marie: “I could never have written this book if my brother was still alive.”

Memories of Carl will forever be connected to his orchards. “There are always apples around him. Women, too. Apple pie. Big, chic antique bowls of wooden apples in all colors: red and gold and striped. Apple ceramics, apple pencils, apple photos.”

For another portrait of a complicated man, consider the biography of the late Steve Jobs, a founder of the Apple computer company.

This book has a far wider scope, offering the life of the genius intermixed with what is, in many ways, a history of Silicon Valley. The cast of characters alone is three pages long. Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson, appeared in 2011. The author began the research at Jobs’ request, once its subject promised not to interfere.

That must have been difficult for Jobs. He was a neurotic control freak. But worse, his temper tantrums terrorized his employees. He refused to acknowledge his daughter’s birth, denying his single mother ex any help financially (until a court case resolved the issue). He would ridicule the ideas of others, then return a week later and present the same concepts, claiming them as his own and, often, copyrighting them.

He was also a creative genius who changed the world of computing and electronics, always pushing, demanding, freaking out over bad design or insufficiently far-sighted products. (He also oversaw some notable failures; to be a genius is not always to be successful.)

The book is a whopping 600 pages, and at one point devolves into Apple product euphoria. But anyone interested in complicated people or technology or design should pick up this book. Even Jobs’ eating habits were fascinating.

Jobs would glom onto fad diets and unknown spiritual gurus with regularity. There were times when he would eat only carrots.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz would be entertained, but also concerned. No single food has “magical health properties,” Schwarcz has noted earnestly, and a healthy diet requires a mix of edibles.

As a younger man, Jobs refused to bathe for days and days at a time – he didn’t need to – because body odour, he believed, was caused by eating meat. He was on one of his carrot binges at the time.

According to friends, Jobs’ theory was incorrect.

But let’s get back to the harvest. A fully balanced diet includes apple pie. The Missisquoi Museum’s annual fundraiser, the Apple Pie Festival, is set for Sunday, Sept. 21, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. It’s at 2 River, in Stanbridge East (and the cost is $9). To ensure a more diverse diet, there will also be ice cream. Bring a picnic if you’d like, and then visit the museum, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Call 450-248-3153 or visit

– Eleanor Brown, September 12, 2014


About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au Click on the above to get to our website!
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