Turns out, the Red Delicious apple used to be, well, delicious. Here’s what went wrong.
By Katherine Keenan
Jun 16 2022
When you picture an apple, you picture the Red Delicious. Yet the same process which led to this apple’s vibrant color actually led to its downfall.Photo Credit : Pixabay
It wasn’t always a misnomer. At one point, Red Delicious apples were among the most highly coveted apple varieties in the United States — and they had a flavor to match.
In 2018, however, we saw the end of the Red Delicious apple’s long reign. Gala apples, with their mottled hues and mild sweetness, took the lead, marking the first time in more than 50 years that any apple’s sales surpassed those of the Red Delicious.
It’s a no-brainer: Given the wide array of apple cultivars to choose from nowadays — and with even more varieties emerging every year — who would opt for the tough skin and mealy flesh of a Red Delicious (or what Yankee senior food editor Amy Traverso calls “a mouthful of roughage”)?
But did you know there’s an identifiable reason for the downfall of the most iconic apple in America?
Here’s how the king of apples was dethroned: slowly, steadily, and, as it turns out, intentionally.
I rant about Red Delicious apples fairly frequently. A simple mention of the name conjures up memories of dejected lunchbox remnants. Of depressing waxy fruit bowls. Of thick maroon skin and mealy flesh. The kind of apple that almost resists letting you bite it. The kind of apple that is purely an “apple of the eye,” seemingly intended for everything but consumption.
Imagine my frustration, then, when I learned that Red Delicious apples were actually engineered to be bad.
The story begins with the Ben Davis apple. Extremely popular during the 19th century and early 20th century, this cultivar was known to fruit growers as a “mortgage lifter” because it was so reliable. Alas, all of this was due to the apple’s good looks, however, rather than its taste.
In the late 1880s, Iowa farmer Jesse Hiatt stumbled across a mystery apple seedling in his orchard. Despite his repeated attempts to stop the interloper from taking root, it continued to spring up year after year. Hiatt eventually gave up and dubbed the apple “Hawkeye” in honor of his home state.
In 1893, hoping to find an apple with the beauty of a Ben Davis but with superior taste, Missouri-based Stark Brothers Nurseries & Orchards held a contest. Hiatt submitted his Hawkeye apple for consideration.
After one bite of Hiatt’s creation, the president of Stark Brothers exclaimed, “My! This apple is delicious!” He paused, then declared, “That will be its name!”
According to LeAnn Zotta’s book 200 Years and Growing: The Story of Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co., Stark Brothers soon purchased the rights from Hiatt and named the apple the “Stark Delicious.” In 1914, after the naming of the Golden Delicious, it received its final name: Red Delicious.
The Red Delicious boomed in popularity. By the 1940s it was the best-selling apple in the United States. Soon, however, selective breeding took its toll.
“It was kind of this ‘gold-rush mentality’ with apples where if you found a really good one, you could market it,” says Yankee’s Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. “The [Red Delicious] was a chance seedling, and I like to imagine what a revelation it was to come across this apple tree that you hadn’t even planted. To taste the fruit for the first time and realize it was just incredible.”
Traverso explains that on any apple tree you have what are called “sports,” which are apples that might have a slightly different genetic expression than the rest. When Red Delicious apples mutated toward more consistent coloring — i.e., brighter reds, less striping — farmers favored them, because this was a marketable quality. And therein lies the problem.
“It turns out that a lot of the genes that coded for the flavor-producing compounds were on the same chromosomes as the genes for the yellow striped skin,” Traverso explains, “so as you favored the more consistently colored apples, you were essentially disfavoring the same genes that coded for great flavor.”
Traverso adds that as the Red Delicious was being bred to have more uniformity, it was also being bred to have thicker skin — “which was great when you were shipping things on trains,” she says, “but now you’re getting this mouthful of thick skin.”
By prioritizing aesthetics, apple growers were slowly destroying the Red Delicious’s deliciousness. As Traverso says: “They literally bred the flavor out of the apple.”
If you’re heading to a pick-your-own orchard this fall, you’re not likely to see many Red Delicious apples. Traverso says she’s talked to many farmers who, for the past 15 years or so, have been ripping out their Red Delicious trees in favor of Gala, Fuji, and Honeycrisp. “They’re probably the first ones to go when farmers need to start repurposing acreage,” she says.
What does Traverso suggest you pick instead? If you’re looking for a sweet, floral quality, a ripe Gala will do the trick. Also recommended: Fuji, Ginger Gold, and Snapdragon.
For more of Traverso’s apple wisdom, read her guide to the five best new apple varieties and her guide to the best apples for apple pie.
Are you still on the Red Delicious bandwagon? Let us know below.
This post was first published in 2019 and has been updated.