The Washington Apple Commission describes the Red Delicious on its website as “the world’s favorite snacking apple,” but all schoolchildren who have ever thrown one away know the truth: Red Delicious apples suck.
Bland, sometimes cardboardy in texture and usually covered in wax, they’re still found in gas stations, in bowls at the reception desks of fancy hotels and, yes, in brown bag school lunches. But who likes to eat them?
Not even many growers. Mike Beck, who tends 80 acres of apples at Uncle John’s Cider Mill, admits he grows some Red Delicious to add color to some of his ciders, but he won’t eat them. They’re not among his top 10 snacking apples. Or his top 100.
“They’re not even in my top 2,000 eating apples,” says Beck, who served for 15 years on the Michigan Apple Committee. “It’s not a totally bad apple, but I know, for a lot of growers, it’s not one of the apples they’re saving in their personal cold storage. I can tell you that.”
So why did the Red Delicious become so popular, and why has it come to suck so hard? The answer lies in agricultural and eating history.
The Red Delicious was first called the Hawkeye, and Jesse Hiatt found it growing on his farm in Peru, Iowa, around 1870. “It came up as a seedling in his orchard,” says Charlotte Shelton, the owner of Albemarle Ciderworks and Vintage Virginia Apples. “He dug it up, but it kept coming up. He was Quaker, and he thought that because of its persistence, maybe it deserved to live.”
“The original Red Delicious was pretty awesome in the sense that it was a highly edible apple that appealed to many,” Beck says. “But it wasn’t red. It was red and yellow-striped. The original Hawkeye had maybe a little bit of pineapple or melon flavors. It was fruity and sweet, but it didn’t look awesome.”
It was introduced to market in 1874. “Then it won a competition by the Stark Brothers Nursery,” he says.
C.M. Stark, the company’s president, said it was the best apple he had ever tasted, Shelton says, so he bought the rights to it. By 1914, the nursery renamed the variety Red Delicious, and “over time, red became the thing,” Beck says. So did typeness, or specific qualities — for the Red Delicious, a distinctive shape, with a very voluptuous top that elongates into five points on the bottom.
“The Stark Nursery promoted it, and over time, it’s been bred to produce redder and redder apples,” Shelton says.
With promotion and marketing, the Red Delicious’ following grew. “At one time, it was estimated to be 90 percent of the apple crop,” she says.
The big change — and surge in popularity — happened in the 1950s. “It was the SweeTango [a hybrid variety growing in popularity] of the 1950s,” says Bob Purman, the owner of Island Orchard Cider, who grows his own heritage apples on Washington Island in Lake Michigan.
“In the 1950s, as Red Delicious was developing, there was a major shift in the way Americans bought food,” Beck says. “Previously, people would buy food right from the farm or at farmers markets until the advent of good refrigeration and the grocery store chains. So people started buying with their eyes. The Red Delicious, without a doubt, is a pretty apple. It’s gorgeous and very inviting, but it’s kind of like you think you’re buying a Corvette, and then you get into a Chevette.”
The Red Delicious apples became popular, he says, because growers could sell them to packers, who in turn sold them to those grocery store chains, which also fueled a change in their taste.
“The strive for a better retail presentation led orchardists and nurserymen to try to design and crossbreed that Red Delicious to get that perfect dark red color and those perfect five little bumps on the bottom,” says Paul Vander Heide, owner of Vander Mill Cider. “And in the process, they forgot that things have got to taste good.”
“People would buy food right from the farm or at farmers markets until the advent of good refrigeration and the grocery store chains. So people started buying with their eyes. The Red Delicious, without a doubt, is a pretty apple.”
Joe Heron, the founder and former owner of Crispin Cider, doesn’t believe the taste ever changed. “They always sucked,” he says. “When you asked anybody about their taste, they always said it tasted like crap. The Red Delicious was always pretty average because the molecular structure was what it was.”
But people’s tastes have changed. “Our expectation of an apple is now driven by Honey Crisp, which is just sweet enough, just crisp enough,” he says. “Our expectations of greatness have changed.”
Nonetheless, the Red Delicious persists, and today these undesirable apples are as likely to be exported to the western Pacific Rim, Mexico and parts of Europe. “The Pacific Rim is still having a little bit of a love affair with it, so Red Delicious are still part of the growers’ mix,” Beck says. “But as far as being grower friendly, I’d give them a 6 or a 6.5 out of 10. They’re not the hardest thing to grow but not the best. But for so long a time, it was a real wage earner for these guys, especially the guys who didn’t have a market presence, who were just sending them to a packer.”
Can a Red Delicious ever taste good?
“Off the tree, they look like you’re getting something really great, but …” Beck says, trailing off with a sigh.
If you want it to taste better, the Red Delicious needs to be left on the tree so long that a condition called watercore develops. “What that means is the starches and sugars get converted to sorbitol, or unfermentable sugar,” he says. “They’re very sweet, but they don’t last long. If you let the Red Delicious do that, even the cardboard ones can become nonoffensive. They can get a little interesting-er.”
If you want a better-tasting apple, go to an orchard or farm to buy apples.
Or try a different variety like the Fuji, which is a better-tasting descendant of the Red Delicious. Or taste an Empire or a Jonagold.
“And Winesap — they’re like biting into a glass of chardonnay. They’re so delicious,” Beck says.