February 14, 2006

Twelve Easy Pieces(of Sliced Apple)

For years, suspicion has been growing in the orchards of the Wenatchee Valley in Washington State and in the food industry at large that fruit, nature's original hand-held convenience food, is simply too poorly designed for today's busy eater. The apple, for instance: whatever it has meant to Americans over the years — from mom's pie to the little red schoolhouse — getting our mouths around one has also apparently meant some unspoken aggravation. Next to a banana or a grape, it's a daunting strongbox of a fruit, prohibitively so for anyone with braces or dentures; and even if you can break in, there's no guarantee a given apple will eat as sweet as it looks.

Nearly half of Americans now consume most of their meals away from home or on the go, utilizing an expedient fleet of Go-Gurts, drinkable soups and cereal bars, while bags of prewashed salad and baby carrots await us at home. Given how many foods we've been able to tweak or outright reinvent to fit into our harried lives, who could take seriously the Granny Smith — which, not unlike the bayonet or the daguerreotype, is by contemporary standards a cumbersome and unreliable technology? What appeal could an apple have left but nostalgia, the kind of thing you'd find at Restoration Hardware beside a galvanized watering can?

"A bowl of apples is like a piece of art," says Tony Freytag, marketing director at Crunch Pak, an apple-processing company. "It's display. People won't touch it. But you put out a tray of cut-up apples — that's food."

Since helping found Crunch Pak in 2000, Freytag has become one pioneer in a rapidly growing industry: packaging bags of ordinary-looking, fresh slices of apples that, bathed in an all-natural flavorless sealant, won't turn brown or lose their crisp for up to three weeks. Last year, McDonald's stocked 54 million pounds of presliced apples, to sell with caramel dip or in salads, and this increased visibility boosted enthusiasm for them in school cafeterias and among time-strapped, health-conscious parents nationwide. Crunch Pak now slices and packs apples under its own name for Wal-Mart and nearly a dozen other chains, under the in-house brand at Whole Foods and for the organic bagged-salad giant Earthbound Farm. In loose one-pound bags (about $2.99), eight-packs of two-ounce snack pouches (about $3.99) or six-ounce cupholder-ready canisters (about $1.99), they have slipped onto refrigerated shelves among packages of herbs and cantaloupe cubes.

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