Almost everyone agrees: The Red Delicious is a crime against the apple. The fruit makes for a joyless snack, despite the false promise of its name, with a bitter skin that gives way to crumbling, mealy flesh. The Red Delicious is a bit like a Styrofoam prop: It looks picturesque, but really has no business in the mouth. Maybe that’s why the New York Apple Association suggests people use their Red Delicious in holiday wreaths and centerpieces. They sure look nice, but they taste like inanimate objects.
As fruits go, the Red Delicious has an unparalleled power to inspire visceral disgust. (There are whole Reddit threads devoted to bashing it.) And yet the variety is ubiquitous. Though it’s no longer the most popular apple in America—since its heyday in the 1980s, it’s been overtaken by newer, tastier varieties—the Delicious remains the most heavily produced apple in the United States. Which means that, even though we’ve long since caught on, you can still find the red scourge everywhere.
This raises some important questions. Why do we keep growing 2.7 billion pounds of Red Delicious apples every year? And are growers still excited by the Delicious or are they stuck between a declining market and an orchard they can’t afford to tear up?
To understand the modern Red Delicious, it helps to know its roots. In the 1870s, a farmer named Jesse Hiatt discovered a rogue apple tree growing between the rows of his orchard in Peru, Iowa. After trying to chop it down several times, he finally let the tenacious upstart grow; to his surprise, it matured into something that bore delicious, crisp, red- and gold-streaked fruit. Hiatt sent his apple to a contest that the Stark Brothers’s nursery held in 1894, searching for the next great apple. When C.M. Stark, the company’s president, bit into Hiatt’s submission, he reacted like a 19th-century Action Bronson: “My, that’s delicious,” he reportedly exclaimed. And that became the name.
Stark snatched up rights to the apple immediately, according to the book, Apples Galore! by A.C. Bright, and marketed it with a savvy that ultimately changed the business. Around the turn of the 19th century, the company spent three-quarters of a million dollars promoting the Delicious tree, including sending it as a free gift to customers throughout the United States. Stark’s hope that the apple would prove successful in multiple climates panned out, and before long the nursery was flooded with letters requesting to plant the tree. By 1922, the annual value of the Delicious crop was $12 million.
The next year, a New Jersey grower discovered that one branch of his Delicious tree had not only ripened before the others, but had also turned a deep crimson red. That “sport,” or mutated branch, was purchased for $6,000. Soon, the whole industry of Delicious growers was on the lookout for their own mutation that would produce a prettier, more apple-like apple.
As the Red Delicious continued to evolve, subsequent breeding privileged physical appearance and durability over taste. The famous dimpled, coke-bottle bottom made the apple easy to stack and transport, while the tough skin reduced bruising and helped improve shelf life. By the 1980s, the Red Delicious made up 75 percent of the entire apple crop grown in Washington, the state that produces two-thirds of the country’s apples. But delicious it was not.
“They eventually went too far and ended up with apples the public didn’t want to eat,” Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and orchardist told The Washington Post in 2005.
The market for Red Delicious began to shrink as the public caught on to the fact that America’s most alluringly named apple had been bred for looks, not taste. And as new, better-tasting varieties like the Honeycrisp and Gala caught on, the market started to collapse. But it’s not like orchardists can just drop everything and swich. Mature apple trees bear fruit for years, and transitioning production to a new variety can be an expensive proposition—as much as $50,000 per acre. Many Red Delicious growers are more or less locked in, even as the variety falls out of favor.
In 2000, the government approved the largest bailout in apple industry history, spending a total of $138 million or roughly $30,000 per grower, in Washington. But this solved only some of growers’ financial woes; since then, the industry has focused more heavily on exports. If Americans won’t eat the Red Delicious anymore, the thinking goes, surely someone else will.
The qualities that cause U.S. eaters to shun the Red Delicious have had a silver lining: The apple’s thick skin, low cost, and good looks make it a perfect export apple. According to Steve Reinholt, export manager for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, the apples store and ship exceptionally well, arriving on distant shores looking unblemished and pristine. Oneonta was the first grower to export Washington apples in the 1930s and today the company ships fruit to over 50 countries. Americans may be turning away from the Red Delicious, but the rest of the world—for now—appears to be willing to pick up our slack.
“Red Delicious is the gateway apple,” Reinholt says, the apple that hooks countries on American-grown fruit. Today, over half of our Red Delicious crop is exported, leaving roughly 580 million pounds of the apples to be eaten in this country. This global demand has been a boon for orchardists who began production long ago. The Red Delicious may not be making growers rich but it is providing a necessary entrée into countries that want a taste of Washington apples.
Most of our Red Delicious apples wind up in Mexico, India, Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Many of these markets have unsophisticated supply chains, where product can wait in ports for days, or be left to sit in holding areas without temperature control. Paul McCarthy, assistant manager for Northwest Fruit Exporters, says that it can take 15 to 21 days for an apple to ship from Seattle to China—an arduous journey best undertaken by a hearty, low-maintenance fruit.
At the same time, the cheap price of Red Delicious makes the fruit especially desirable in markets with low average incomes. The variety tends to cost less for several reasons. First, soft domestic demand has tanked price and they tend to be grown on older trees, with the startup costs long since paid off. Also, their production doesn’t include the “club fees” charged to orchards growing newer, proprietary strains like the Honeycrisp, since the Delicious variety was developed almost a century ago.
“If we try to sell some of the newer varieties in overseas markets they’re too expensive,” says Desmond O’Rourke, CEO of Belrose, Inc., a company that provides analysis of the global apple market.
Still, O’Rourke feels that as incomes rise in those countries, people will likely turn away from the Red Delicious just as we did. In China, for instance, where the color red is associated with luck and prosperity, the apple’s looks have long made the Red Delicious desirable. But that’s already starting to change, according to Public Radio International. Though less than a decade ago many Chinese consumers were still buying with their eyes, more recently taste has become a bigger factor in this market. “Products go in and out of fashion,” O’Rourke says.
Red Delicious represents a full 35 percent of Oneonta’s apple production even though Reinholt says he’s slowly cutting back. “We are reducing our volume of Red Delicious every year,” he says. That’s the tricky thing about being in the apple business: Trees take years to grow and change is often glacial. But consumer appetites can shift almost overnight.
For now, Americans still manage to choke down billions of Red Delicious apples annually. The question is, who’s buying?
We’re choosing them at the supermarket less often, and the Gala now reigns supreme as the nation’s favorite apple, according to the U.S. Apple Association. While the Kroger grocery chain says it still carries Red Delicious, spokesperson Kristal Howard acknowledges that the apples “have declined in popularity with our customers.”
“Many customers are exploring and purchasing high-color, high-flavor varieties such as Honeycrisp,” she says.
Increasingly, then, the Red Delicious is served in institutions where people have little choice about what they’re eating. It’s the official apple of the captive audience.
“The three most commonly served fruits are apples, oranges, and bananas,” says Carol Chong, national nutrition advisor for Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program. In schools and cafeterias she visits throughout country, “typically it’s Red Delicious apples” being served, she says. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that Red Delicious is the apple of choice in schools, hospitals, hotels, and even food banks throughout the country, though it’s hard to say definitively if that’s true. Not all institutions keep data on how much of each food they get, and none of the data differentiate between types of apples.
At Baldor, the Northeast’s largest produce and specialty food distributor, Red Delicious may be the second most popular apple variety—but American consumers aren’t buying them directly. The bulk of them go to hospitals, “then schools and hotel chains,” says Ben Walker, senior director of marketing and development. “They’re less popular with our retail and food service clients.”
Regular buyers of the Red Delicious tend not to be known for culinary prowess. They are more often places that want a raw ingredient at low cost and high volume.
Schools, in particular, struggle to live up to nutrition standards while remaining under a set cost per student. So Red Delicious apples, which can be easily sliced en mass using inexpensive machinery, are a perfect fit. They’re also one of six varieties of fresh apple offered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its food distribution programs. Depending on the school, 15-20 percent of food that makes it to the lunchroom comes through this program, which often relies on surplus produce from farmers.
When Red Delicious growers can’t find customers among the public, in other words, they can often rely on the U.S. government. When even that fails, growers and distributors can always give unsold apples away for free in exchange for tax credits. Myrna Jensen, a marketing and communications associate at the Oregon Food Bank (OFB), which coordinates food deliveries to 21 regional food banks and more than 1,200 food assistance sites within the state, says that the charity gets a lot of produce that way. “We take what the growers want to give us,” she says. Last year, OFB received 50 truckloads of apples—or two million pounds—in donations. The fact that the Delicious still makes up roughly 30 percent of the Washington apple crop means that a lot of those pounds had a dark red skin and a not-so-delicious taste.
“I’ve not really had a great tasting Red Delicious,” Jensen personally concedes. But the food assistance system is often forced to traffic in whatever’s left unsold, and the Red Delicious is frequently the last apple standing.
Reviled, rejected, and refused across the country, the Red Delicious has found its purpose as the apple people eat when they can’t choose or afford anything else. It might not be a glamorous position but it’s an important one nonetheless. Unlike a lot of fresh produce, these apples have a months-long shelf life and can be a healthful food in places where grocery shelves have few other fresh foods to choose from.
You might not like the taste, but the fruit’s durability, high volume, and low price tend to be too powerful to ignore. And don’t forget to keep the Red Delicious in mind next time you need an apple for your holiday wreath.