Autumn spells and smells of apples. Nowadays, newly patented apple varieties promise to dazzle our taste buds anew as fall harvests come in from our nation’s orchards.
It was not always so. As a reminder, I recently bit into a nice-looking Red Delicious apple taken from a bowl of fresh fruit in our law firm reception area. A mealy, sickly-sweet mash with leathery skin fragments stayed unchewed in my mouth—until I could race to the nearest bathroom, spit it out, and flush it down.
Inducing gag reactions is hardly a way to build markets for edible products. Yet, a yawning taste chasm emerged in the mid 20th century as apple growers and grocery store chains foisted an increasingly indigestible Red Delicious apple on American consumers. Put more colorfully, it was rammed down our throats, per Tom Burford, author of Apples of North America (2013).
This post charts how a handful of plant patents issued in early 1990s revived the pure apple eating experience—rescuing the American palate from the tasteless diktats of Red Delicious purveyors.
The Rise and Fall of the Red Delicious Apple
Red delicious apples did not begin their varietal life in the pits. In fact, it originated in the 1880s as “a round, blushed fruit of surpassing sweetness” named the Hawkeye; and won a taste competition organized by Stark Brothers Nurseries. “‘My, that’s delicious,’ the company’s president reportedly said after his first bite.”
Growers, distributors and big-box grocery stores loved the Red Delicious apple because it looks so beautiful. By the 1940s, it had become America’s most popular apple. Its thick skin hid bruising and extended shelf life. Breeding smaller trees and the advent of controlled atmospheric storage in the 1960s ensured its continued marketplace domination.
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.
But as the Red Delicious “genes for beauty were favored over those for taste, the skins grew tough and bitter around mushy, sugar-soaked flesh.” It became the “largest compost maker in the country” as customers bought them—only to throw them away in the garbage.