Why do we bob for apples?

You know it's a gross public safety hazard. But what do you know about the origins of apple bobbing, or of its surprising staying power even after the germ theory of disease? Read on for three surprising facts about the game, and for a slightly less unhealthy one to replace it with. 

A beautiful basket of apples that should be tossed into a cesspool of disease. PC  Annie Spratt .

A beautiful basket of apples that should be tossed into a cesspool of disease. PC Annie Spratt.

Apple bobbing was not originally a children's game, but an adult one. In an interview with NPR's Alison Richards, Joan Morgan describes the game as a courtship ritual: 

In one popular version of the game, girls would secretly mark apples before tipping them into a barrel of water. Apples float, and as the girls' potential sweethearts ducked to catch the fruit with their teeth, future couplings were determined — or foretold.

In another version of the game, women bobbed for the apples, and the first to bite was the first to marry. In what is indisputably the best version ("Snap Apple"), an apple was put on one end of a stick and candle on the other end. Once the candle was lit, the stick was spun around and players had to bite the apple without being burned. 

The current Guinness Record for simultaneous apple bobbing is 597 people. Jeremiah Shaver of the Jackson County Times-Journal reported that "the apples, buckets, and water used to break the record were all from Ohio." That's 597 individual buckets, given the optics of a health care insurer exposing people to disease. But Jackson may lose its title soon. The city of Bismarck, sponsored by the Bismarck Cancer Center, attempted to break the record in late September. No news on whether or not they'll supplant Jackson, but this Ohio-based writer's rooting for the home team. 

Perhaps the existence of honorifics for the largest group of simultaneous apple bobbers has established a continued niche for those studying the perfect bobbing apple. The supermarket chain Sainsbury's enlisted the research skills of University College London's mathematician Frank Smith to determine the characteristics of the perfect bobbing apple. His calculations, including overall shape and density, led him to identify the Zari apple, a variety introduced in Europe in 2000, as the best choice. But if you are thinking about entering in the next apple bobbing championship, you may want to accept this advice with caution. According to Sainsbury's own promotional materials on its Concept Orchard, the grocer is not only a key seller of apples, but a growing producer of them. Big Apple might have a lot to gain in keeping the tradition of apple bobbing afloat. Then again, this may all be moot, unless another mathematician or food scientist comes along to provide Americans with a Zari equivalent.

Unless you're striving for the record books at your gathering, and if you're not brave enough to try your luck at Snap Apple, I offer the following alternative to Halloween-based competitive eating: donut bobbing.

Donut bobbing: the healthier choice for Halloween-based competitive eating.

Donut bobbing: the healthier choice for Halloween-based competitive eating.

Individual donuts can be suspended in a line, ensuring that contestants can play en masse just as they did in the old days, but without the fear of widespread disease. Donut bobbing is not just a safer way to honor the original game of apple bobbing, but a more accurate one. The potential for accidentally kissing a fellow player when rooting for your swaying apple cider donut evokes the game's romantic origins.