I seem to remember a few discussions on why apples don't taste
like they used to, so I thought this article might interest some.
Why the Red Delicious no longer is
Decades of makeovers alter apple to its core
By Adrian Higgins
The Washington Post
Updated: 11:53 p.m. ET Aug. 4, 2005
Consider the fate of America's favorite apple. It emerged from an
Iowa orchard in 1880 as a round, blushed yellow fruit of
But like a figure in a TV makeover show, it was an apple that its
handlers could not leave alone. They altered its shape. They made
it firmer and more juicy. They made it so it could be stored in
hermetically sealed warehouses for 12 months. Along the way, they
changed its color and hence its name -- to Red Delicious.
The only problem was the American consumer, whose verdict on the
made-over apple has become increasingly clear: Of the two words
in the Red Delicious name, one can no longer be believed.
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"They eventually went too far and ended up with apples the public
didn't want to eat," said Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and
retired orchardist in Pittsboro, N.C.
In the 1980s heyday of the Red Delicious, it represented
three-quarters of the harvest in Washington state, epicenter of
the apple industry. By 2000, it made up less than half, and in
2003, the crop had shrunk to just 37 percent of the state's
harvest of 103 million boxes. Red Delicious remains the single
largest variety produced in the state, but others are ascending
in market share as rapidly as Red Delicious is dropping, notably
Fuji and Gala.
The reliance on Red Delicious helped push Washington's apple
industry to the edge in the late 1990s and into this decade.
Depressed prices for Red Delicious, weaker foreign markets and
stiffer competition from abroad, including apple concentrate from
China, contributed to major losses in the nation's apple
industry, which mounted to $700 million in 2001, according to the
U.S. Apple Association. The industry has recovered somewhat since
then, in part because reduced harvests have buoyed prices.
Who's to blame for the decline of Red Delicious? Everyone, it
seems. Consumers were drawn to the eye candy of brilliantly red
apples, so supermarket chains paid more for them. Thus, breeders
and nurseries patented and propagated the most rubied mutations,
or "sports," that they could find, and growers bought them by the
millions, knowing that these thick-skinned wonders also would
store for ages.
"Did they do it because it has less flavor? Obviously not," said
Eugene M. Kupferman, a post-harvest specialist at Washington
State University's tree fruit research center in Wenatchee, Wash.
"They did it because it has better legs and they are getting more
money for it."
The Washington harvest begins in mid-August and runs to late
October, and most apples sold through December are simply stored
in refrigerated warehouses. Fruit shipped later in this cycle is
kept in a more sophisticated environment called
controlled-atmosphere storage -- airtight rooms where the
temperatures are chilly, the humidity high and the oxygen levels
reduced to a bare minimum to arrest aging. Last year's fruit will
be sold through September, just as the new harvest is in full
Storage apples must be picked before all their starches turn to
sugar. Pick too late, and the apple turns mealy in the
supermarket, but pick too soon, and the apple will never taste
sweet. Growers test for optimum conditions, but today's popular
strains of Red Delicious turn color two to three weeks before
harvest, making it difficult for pickers to distinguish an apple
that is ready from one that isn't.
Some strains "develop full red color in mid-August," said Stephen
S. Miller, a research horticulturist for the USDA's Appalachian
Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va. "Physiologically,
that apple is still as green as grass."
The grower could deliver a better apple by harvesting a tree in
two or three waves -- the outside fruit ripens earlier than fruit
in the center of the tree. This is done for Galas and other
premium varieties, but the prices for Red Delicious are so
depressed that farmers can't afford that. "You would put yourself
out of business," said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for
Stemilt Growers Inc., a major grower in Wenatchee. In addition,
the redder strains' thicker skins, found to be rich in
antioxidants, taste bitter to many palates.
As an industry, "we weren't consistent with the eating quality,
and fairly soon, that erodes the base," said Gip Redman, manager
of field services for the Holtzinger Fruit Co., a major packer
and shipper based in Yakima, Wash.
Washington growers are seeking to spring back with intensively
planted orchards of more lucrative varieties, better storage
practices and new marketing strategies, including an emphasis on
organic fruit. But if the future for growers in the Yakima and
Wenatchee valleys looks brighter, the fate of the Red Delicious
"You are sort of writing an obituary," said Calhoun, whose
orchard grew hundreds of heirloom varieties that defined an age
in which apples were regional and seasonal, with only a few
strains suited to keeping to January. Now, the globalization of
agriculture and high-tech storage give the consumer apples 12
months a year.
Dozens of strains of Red Delicious have been developed by
breeders since the original appeared in Madison County, Iowa,
though only a handful are widely used. Redman says the industry
has moved to make Red Delicious more consistently high in
quality, "but once you lose that shelf space, I don't think you
get that back. The consumer wants a choice."
Groomed for stardom
The decline of one of the most widely grown apples in history is
momentous to observers like Calhoun. Unlike, say, the McIntosh, a
wildling that made its way into commerce slowly, the Red
Delicious was groomed for stardom from birth.
In the 1880s, a mail-order nurseryman named Clarence Stark held a
competition to find an apple to replace the Ben Davis, a variety
grown extensively in orchards from Pennsylvania to Missouri. At
the same time, Jesse Hiatt, a farmer in Peru, Iowa, was trying to
interest nurseries in buying and propagating a seedling he had
raised and named the Hawkeye. Stark bit, so to speak, paid Hiatt
for the rights, and then renamed the seedling the Delicious as a
marketing ploy. When Stark's successors, in a similar stunt,
found and named the Golden Delicious growing in West Virginia in
1914, the Delicious became Red Delicious.
At the end of the 19th century, a group of young and
forward-thinking entrepreneurs settled in Washington state
knowing that the high valley slopes would produce optimum
conditions to grow apples on a massive scale, which could be
shipped by railroad to eastern markets. At first, they relied on
a storage apple called Winesap but in the 20th century developed
a liking for the Red Delicious.
Its dominance was secured by the breeding of smaller, more
productive trees in the 1940s and the advent of
controlled-atmosphere storage in the 1960s.
Apart from its keeping qualities, the Red Delicious was a variety
Washington growers loved because they could raise it better than
orchardists in other states. The abundant sunshine and cool
nights of the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys produced a fruit that
was far redder and elongated and more distinctively lobed than
Jesse Hiatt's Hawkeye, which was rounder and yellow-green with
only a modest amount of red blushing and striping.
In spite of the wholesale replanting with other varieties, Redman
of Holtzinger Fruit can't imagine a Washington landscape without
"It's still a good eating apple and a very popular one. This is
the best place in the world to grow Red Delicious, so we'll never
do away with it," he said.
‘On its way out’
Stemilt Growers' Pepperl agrees, saying that "everything gets
better or goes away, and I think it's going to get better. It's
one of prettiest apples we have, it's got a long history and it's
high in antioxidants."
Calhoun, the apple historian, is not as sure. "You could live a
lifetime and never see a Ben Davis these days." The Red Delicious
"is an apple that has done it's duty and is on its way out."
That view is borne out at the Brookville Super Market in Chevy
Chase, where manager Sidney Hersh offers Red Delicious at 20
cents a pound cheaper than Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji
and Gala varieties but sees the others outselling it by as much
as 2 to 1.
"People want something better," he said. "I would say in the past
couple of years, something has changed."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company
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