So if drying is such a great way to preserve foods, and in all likelihood this apple was dried, why not eat it? Medina Meza was enthusiastic, but Jessica Cooperstone, a food scientist at Ohio State University, didn’t love the idea. “The apple in the Atlantic offices was not stored in a hyper controlled way, and for sure no one wants to eat it,” she told me in an email. Rats.
The danger: those aforementioned microbes, especially fungi. Without pathogens around, the chemical bacchanalia of cell death isn’t usually harmful—it’ll just make the fruit taste nasty—but the sorts of fungi that can infect apples are pretty much everywhere, spores a-wafting. It’s a marvel that this particular apple didn’t show any outward evidence of infection. (“I don’t see that much oozing,” Malladi noted.)
But if I was really going to eat it, I had to check beneath its shining, if wrinkly, skin. After bringing the apple home and contemplating it for 10 days (after which it still looked like a giant, moldless date), I placed it on a cutting board and sliced it in half. Inside, it was a yellow-brown color, not too dissimilar from that of regular dried apple rings, though it felt a little wetter and spongier. And I found evidence that a modest contingent of fungi had found the apple during its pandemic isolation—the small, greenish patches in the photo below. Bingo, I thought. That doesn’t look so bad.
RACHEL GUTMAN / THE ATLANTIC
Fungi tend to like warm, wet environments, so a cool, dry office with a decently filtered HVAC system could keep them somewhat at bay, Beckles said. And before it was left out, all alone in a pandemic-stricken city, the apple must have been in pretty good shape, clean and devoid of the cuts and bruises through which microbes could enter. “I would probably just think that it got a little lucky,” Malladi said.
Lucky enough for me to eat it? Malladi let me down easy: “I don’t think it would be very palatable.”
If you were going to leave a perishable snack on your desk for the duration of a pandemic, an apple would actually be a pretty good choice. “Apples are one of the longest lasting fruits that we consume,” Cooperstone told me, and even under normal circumstances, months can pass between harvest and consumption. “If someone left the apple in their office in March 2020, the apple likely originated around September 2019.”
Apples are naturally protected against water loss and microbe attacks because they have a substantial peel and are covered with a waxy cuticle. Grocery-store apples are also usually coated in an additional protective layer of artificial fruit wax. And apples’ rigid cell walls help keep them from totally collapsing once decay sets in, Beckles explained. She emphasized that the cultivar of a fruit can make a big difference: Envy apples in particular are bred to have thick skin, and they brown very slowly if they do get injured, which could have helped this specimen decay especially slowly.