Even the Farmers Say Apples Are Bad
A lot of sheepish looks around the ag hall
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The Red Delicious Is a Lie
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I grew up in Washington state, and I did not care for apples. I have wondered if I didn’t like the taste, or if it was like my disdain for coffee: I think I decided not to like it because I was absolutely surrounded by it.
Even though Washington is extremely proud of its apples, in the 1980s you could only find Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and sometimes Golden Delicious in stores. And these - especially the Red Delicious - were actually bred only for looks with, truly, no consideration of taste. I am vindicated.
Apples come from Central Asia, and the wild plant still grows there. They were domesticated thousands of years ago; some cultivated hybrids in China are at least 2000 years old. They moved from there to Europe to North America, and on their journey west picked up a lot of religious significance to a lot of people.
Most Americans are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, and know that the apple was the “forbidden fruit” that led to the downfall of man. (Though no mainstream religious groups eschew apples - proof, I think, that they used to taste really good.)
Here is something I didn’t know (and as a religious studies major am ashamed of my ignorance): “apple” is the Old English word for “fruit.” Up until the 1600s in England, people used the word to indicate any fruit, including nuts, except berries. Cucumbers were “earth apples;” dates were “finger apples;” “apples of paradise” were bananas. (Yes bananas are berries but only botanists and listeners of this podcast know that.) So, when the word “apple” was used, it could mean anything. And this was not limited to English, as the same construction was used in many languages. Ergo: maybe it wasn’t an apple that made us sinful. Could have been a fig, could have been a citrus. In the Muslim telling, it was wheat.
There are 7-8,000 types of apples. They are cultivated with grafting, and the older varieties sometimes come in shapes that aren’t associated with the fruit now. These old types were created for flavor, which - you know where this is going - was abandoned in the 1900s in favor of apples that won’t bruise easily.
A quick note on Johnny Appleseed: he was a real person, but he did not scatter seeds across the American frontier. Rather, he built nurseries and rented them out to farmers who sold the baby trees to orchardists. He truly did wear a tin pan hat, so Michael Pollan’s theory that the apples were for cider-making might be accurate.
Back to large-scale apples. The cultivar known as Red Delicious was first sold commercially in the 1890s, twenty years after it appeared in Iowa as a mutated Yellow Bellflower. It became Stark Delicious, after the company that propagated it, then it became the Red Delicious in 1914.
Then in 1923 another mutation was discovered, this time on a branch of a Red Delicious tree: one that led us on the path to mushy, tasteless apples. This new guy got red early in the season, and did so uniformly, and it was a darker red than people had seen on apples before. Turns out red skins are thicker than green, yellow, etc. skins, and the early ripening meant they could be picked when unripe and stored for a long time. For the end consumer, that means a mushy apple with a bitter skin. You know, a Red Delicious. But farmers had immediately uprooted their varieties in favor of this sturdy version, and literally grew more fruit than Americans could buy.
I read a quote from the early 2000s from an apple industry executive who called the Red Delicious “the largest compost-maker in the country.” It comprised 75% of Washington state’s apple crop, and the farmers knew people didn’t really eat these apples. And in something of a rarity for the agriculture industry, many of the farmers were like, “yeah, we fudged up.”
Here’s a quote from the New York Times in 2000: ''Nobody should feel sorry for us -- we did this to ourselves,'' said Doyle Fleming, a lifelong apple farmer who has been gradually replacing his Red Delicious trees near this village along the Columbia River with newer varieties. ''For almost 50 years, we've been cramming down the consumer's throat a red apple with ever thicker skin, sometimes mushy, sometimes very good if done right, but a product that was bred for color and size and not for taste.''
And another from the same article: ''What happened was, a whole growing system evolved around color and shape, because that's what the big buyers wanted,'' said Steve Fox, the marketing director of a fruit packing and storage company here in the heart of apple country. ''So they made the apples redder and redder, and prettier and prettier, and they just about bred themselves out of existence.''
By “big buyers,” he meant supermarkets, which are obsessed with produce uniformity. Farmers still growing Red Delicious are often selling them at a loss now, but supermarket executives really don’t care about that.
Those that are still selling Red Delicious are holdouts: their share of the apple market in the US has declined 40% since the 1990s. Most of those apples - about two-thirds - are marked for export.
I remember very clearly when “new” (often actually old varieties) apples started showing up in grocery stores (many of which had been grown for a long time but only exported, like Fujis). In 1999 my whole lacrosse team found out about and became obsessed with McIntoshes. I’ll now go for any apple with multicolored skin and/or the word “crisp” in the name. Now, 90% of apples grown in the US are one of only 15 varieties (there are 2,500 grown commercially), but that’s a vast improvement over the three that I knew as a child, each one tasting like a punishment. This winter, make a nice little project of finding your favorite. 🍎
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