The Red Delicious Apple: What went wrong?

When I was young we had only a few variety of apples to choose from at our local markets. There were McIntosh, which I didn’t like because they were soft to the bite, the great big Romes that were good for baking, and, occasionally, Jonathan, Winesap, Northern Spy and Ida Red.

And then there were the Red Delicious and Yellow Delicious, which were ubtquitous, especially the reds. Both were delightfully crunchy and sweet.

Michigan Red Delicious  are still similar to those of my childhood, but somewhere along the line, the Washington Red Delicious, the most common apple in America, went off the rails.

Originally a roundish, mostly golden fruit blushed with red, it became a huge, dark red, almost oblong monstrosity with bitter skin and mushy flesh. Bleah!

The rise of the Red Declicious

In an article in Atlantic from September, 2014, Sarah Yager gives an interesting history of the rise and ongoing fall of the Red Delicious apple, which has dominated apple production in the U.S. for more than 70 years.

Its history starts in 1893, when Stark Brothers’ Nursery in Missouri held a contest to find a replacement for the Ben Davis apple, then the most widely planted variety in the country.

Jesse Hiatt, an Iowa farmer, submitted a new variety of apple that had grown from a mutant seedling in his orchard. He called it the Hawkeye. Clarence Stark, president of the company sponsoring the contest, reportedly took a bite and said, “My, that’s delicious!”

Stark Brothers secured rights to the Hawkeye and changed its name to Stark Delicious. (When the Golden Delicious came out in 1914, the earlier variety was rebranded the Red Delicious.)

Clarence Stark spent a small fortune promoting the new apple, which quickly became a favorite of growers and apple lovers.

In 1923, a chance genetic mutation resulted in apples that reddened earlier and had a deeper, more uniform color. The Gettysburg Times called it “the marvel apple of the age.” Growers began to seek out and cultivate similar mutations.

Shoppers loved the uniform deep red color and sweet taste. Unfortunately, the growers began to prefer apple genes that produced beauty over those that produced good taste. They developed Red Delicious varieties tolerant to being stored in warehouses for up to 12 months. Red Delicious skins grew tough and bitter and the fruit became extra-sugary and mushy.

Washington apparently has the ideal environment for growing the redder and more oblong apples  (which may explain why Michigan Red Delicious apples are still smaller, lighter in color—and tastier).

By the 1980s, Red Delicious accounted for up to 75 percent of Washington State’s apples, where the market was controlled by a few big nurseries.

The fall of the Red Delicious

People bought them, but they didn’t like them. How many thousands of pounds of them were discarded after one bite? The Red Delicious became “the largest compost-maker in the country,” said Timothy Buford, author of Apples of North America.

In the 1990s, new varieties of apples originally developed for overseas markets–such as Gala and Fuji–started becoming popular in America, leaving the Washington growers with a surplus of Red Delicious.

Since then, Red Delicious production has declined by more than 40 percent. By 2003, Red Delicious accounted for only 37 percent of the Washington crop. While it’s still the most common U.S. apple, a greater percentage of the harvest is being shipped abroad. The biggest markets for Red Delicious now are in Southeast Asia.

Despite its decline, many Washington growers think there will always be a market for Red Delicious. Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and retired orchardist in Pittsboro, N.C., disagrees, feeling the Red Delicious is “an apple that has done its duty and is on its way out”–like so many heirloom varieties that preceded it.

Coming soon: What’s the story with all these new apples?

Red Delicious apples are not usually good for cooking, but they work well in the recipe below, especially if you can get the smaller, pinker Red Delicious, not the giant, thick-skinned type. This recipe isn’t that hard to make but it has a real “wow” factor! The recipe comes from the Detroit Free Press, which also has a video showing how to make the dish.