The closer an apple is to rot, the more rot it spreads—one spoiling apple, in a crisper drawer or a fruit bowl, or a storage barrel or a cross-country shipping container, or even still hanging on the bough, speeds the rot of every apple it touches, and even of ones it doesn’t touch. The whole bunch quickly begins to exemplify what the artist Claes Oldenburg called “the brown sad art of rotting apples”: a swamp of ferment, infecting the air with the hideous sweetness of decay. Chaucer was likely the first to write a version of the now commonplace proverb: “A rotten apple’s better thrown away / Before it spoils the barrel.” But I’m partial to Benjamin Franklin’s version: “The rotten apple spoils his companions.” The saying is often used to refer to the corruption of select individuals within a group. But the point is the fruit’s susceptibility to collective rot.

“We are in the war zone against this disease,” George Sundin, a fruit-tree pathologist at Michigan State University, said in 2019, about fire blight, the most recent major threat to apples. The process of eradicating it “is not necessarily trial and error,” he added. “It is things we know are effective, but they need to be more effective. If the disease takes off, it can spread so quickly.” The only way to avoid rot is to be proactive: check every apple, every tree. At the first sight of something amiss—a bruise or broken skin, a sunken place—toss that apple out, but don’t stop there. Scrub all the others and monitor them closely, but know that it’s likely already too late. Better to trim and burn the infected branch, or even the whole tree.

Helen Rosneron bad apples.