Thu. May 26th, 2022

“Some of the best fruit I’ve ever tasted has been from the places you might die,” says city apple expert William Mullan.
Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

I keep asking William Mullan if he’s sure he’s fine. “We do not do that have to go through with this, ”I say. “It’s not too late to reconsider!” But he assures me he’s ready as he unfolds a turquoise rope ladder and removes a long fruit-picking claw from his tote bag.

We are on an elevated path that runs parallel to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, in South Williamsburg, on Yom Kippur, which meant the neighborhood streets were even busier than usual. Below us, cars drive down the sunken highway, their swirling tires and non-stop touting enhanced by BQE’s canyonlike design.

Mullan is wearing pearl earrings, a crop top, jean cut-offs and a pair of Timberlands. “The last time I was here, I stepped on shit and it smelled so bad I just threw my shoes away,” he says, moving his legs. “I’m not messing around this time.”

The plan for the night is to pick some apples from a tree Mullan has itched after picking. The catch is that this particular tree is about 17 feet below street level, so Mullan figures we can either jump on a chain link fence and get down or sit in a car, “pop the dangers on and jump out.” Eventually, he chooses to climb.

Besides the fear of being caught or injured, we are in a bit of a race against the clock: the weather forecast has changed and it looks like a storm may be heading towards us. “This is going to be chaotically good,” Mullan says. I do not know if he’s getting nervous or trying to calm my nerves, even though he’s the only one making the drop tonight. It feels a bit like both.

“It’s funny to me that some of the best fruits I’ve ever tasted have been from the places you might die,” he says. “Which seems like a very appropriate natural metaphor.”

Apples and picking equipment.

Mullan simply drove by when he first discovered this tree from BQE.

Securing the rope ladder.

Mullan, with the night’s bounty.

Photographs of Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

During the day, Mullan works as a brand manager at the small batch of chocolate producer Raaka; at night, Mullan is a photographer who has documented New York City’s apples and apple trees since 2017. “At the time, it had honestly not dawned on me that fruit could survive in urban environments at all,” he recalls. “Even though I know more now, the feeling of amazement when I find super-sized trees filled with fruit in the city still remains.”

Growing up in the UK, Mullan did not initially pursue a career in still life. But through his marketing assignments at Raaka, he began photographing the chocolate bars. After finding an apple tree during a run in Carroll Gardens, he used his office studio outside opening hours to document his findings, initially just playing around. Now the apples have become an unintentional lens through which he has learned about NYC; similarly, he has found a community of other apple-obsessives — from whom he can exchange tips and lessons — as well as a larger queer food scene that is eager to make the industry fairer.

Usually during the apple season in New York City, Mullan can go to Green-Wood Cemetery or a parking lot in Red Hook to pick some fruit and share his photos on Instagram, where his handle is @Pomme_Queen. And in two weeks he will publish Odd apples, a colorful new photo book in collaboration with designer Andrea Trabucco-Campos (and an update to a smaller version of the project that was printed in 2018), which he hopes can expand the public perception of how apples can look and taste. Overall, he says he hopes the project helps people look at trees in a more “poetic way, as sources of wonder and joy, rather than just things we choose and eat.” For this purpose, the book also contains poems by Makshya Tolbert.

Odd apples contains fruit shaped like candles and jack-o’-lanterns with flavor notes ranging from “nutmeg” to “grapefruit yogurt”. Images include hard-to-find apples from library-like orchards at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva and the Hudson Valley Apple Project, among others, highlighting just some of the 7,000 varieties currently known.

At this point, Mullan may find apples that many may miss (this tree he found, for example, while looking out the window of a passing vehicle). As I hover over BQE, I look at how he uses carabiners to attach his ladder to the fence and begin his descent; things work to begin with when his ladder twists and trucks roar past. Eventually he jumps down the last few meters to solid ground and burns with his picker. A police car crawls past on the road below, and Mullan tells me that he’s very aware that he probably could not get away with this if he were not a white man – a privilege that his girlfriend, Ryan Williams, was a fruit grower, does not share.

The apples of the evening (dessert apples, he thinks), are almost cartoon-perfect, something that surprises us both considering the environment. They have a smooth shine and no stains. Mullan puts a few in his bag and leaves most of the apples intact so someone else can find them. “See how big they are!” he says, laughing.

Mullan is not, I should clarify, an apple thief. His goal is to share knowledge (and build on existing research) as well as the literal fruits of his work. When Mullan encounters a common tree, he picks the apples and leaves them in boxes that neighbors can take or make an apple fall out of. “People ask me, ‘Why am I sending the trees? Why do I not want to keep them a secret from myself? ‘and the answer is that all I want is for everyone to have access. “He also makes sure to carry a pen and paper with his picking materials. “If a tree is on someone’s property, I always start by putting a note,” I ask if it’s okay to pick a few apples. “I try to put myself in the shoes of someone who looks after the tree,” he explains, adding, “I’ve been successful at that.”

Back on the street, we clean the fruit and each take a bite. There is an unexpectedly satisfying balance between sour and sweet, with a crispy consistency and none of the food you find in an out-of-state, off-season Gala apple from Whole Foods on Bedford Avenue. “Originally, I thought this apple tree might have grown from someone knocking their apple out of the window of a car or something,” Mullan offers, “but it was surprising to see that someone had actually grafted it into the crabapple tree. “I want to know more about the history of who did this,” he says. , while we pack up and go home and work on the night’s finds.

An essential tool for urban urban picking.

Mullan shows off apples he has collected around town.

Mullan makes a point about sharing the fruit he finds.

Usually, Mullan finds trees in less unsafe places around the city.

Photographs of Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

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