Thursday, February 18

Story of an Apple: Red Delicious

The original Red Delicious which bares only a slight resemblance to the supermarket reds found all over the world today, has its roots in the soil of a farm in Peru Iowa.  The owner of the farm Jesse Hiatt had been trying for several years to kill a young seedling tree, each year cutting it down to a stump.  Every spring the rootstock would send up new shoots.  After several failed attempts to kill it Hiaat gave in to the tree's determination and allowed it to grow for several years.  In the autumn of 1872 the tree bore it's first fruit.  Upon tasting the the fruit described as having "vermillian stripes...over a creamy base," he was quickly thankful for his choice to give into nature, perhaps already sensing the long lasting effect this one fruit would have on the apple world.
He gave the fruit a truly Iowan name, calling it the Hawkeye.  Many years passed, with each one the seedling tree, which he had so desperately wanted to rid is land of, produced grater numbers of the sweet, almost perfume flavored apples.  Twenty-two years after tasting the first apple, Haitt decided he could no longer keep this ambrosial fruit to himself and entered it in the Stark Fruit Fair.  The Stark company, a prominent tree nursery during the late part of the nineteenth century, had decided to hold a competitive fair, with the hopes of finding a new apple to replace the Ben Davis.  As the story goes, C.M. Stark after biting into the apple proclaimed "My, that's delicious - and that's the name fore it."  Unfortunately for Mr. Stark the tag labeling the name and origin of the delectable fruit had been lost during shipping.  Not having any clue where to even begin looking for it, he had no choice but to wait until the following year and hope it would again be entered in the fair.  Jesse Hiatt having faith, foresight and some amount of good fortune, reentered the fruit the following year.  Stark's adoration for the apple had not waned during the previous twelve months and upon tasting it again he decided to purchase the sole rights to propagate it and renamed it the Delicious.  A few decades later the same nursery purchased the rights to an apple that would become known as the Golden Delicious.  Wanting to avoid any confusion the original Delicious was renamed the Red Delicious.  The two varieties together would become the quintessence of an apple in the eyes of many, sharing much more than just a name. 
In the years following his purchase of the Red Delicious Stark made a substantial financial investment in promoting the apple to American growers.  Spending upwards of ten million of today's dollars, Stark force fed the Red Delicious into the U.S. apple market.  His efforts were not in vain, by the time World War II rolled around the Red Delicious was the most popular apple in the country.
Perhaps more than any other apple variety, the Red Delicious has been subject to the aesthetic whims of those who consume it.  A preoccupation with the "perfect fruit" has created what some would consider a monstrous apple, turning the Red Delicious into the poster child for the cosmetic apple industry.  The apple found today in school lunches and big box supermarkets has been scrupulously shaped, colored and remolded into an object that is much more the product of human desire than any single force of nature or genetics.
This phenomenon is largely due to the fact that Red Delicious trees are notorious for producing single-branch mutations called sports.  These branches sometimes produce visibly different looking fruit, that may not only look or taste different, but might also ripen at a different time from the fruit on the rest of the tree.  These branches, if bearing fruit with a desirable trait such as a redder skin, can then be grafted onto new rootstock and subsequently propagated as a new lineage of Red Delicious.    This has allowed growers and breeders to choose mutations that may be redder or more "perfectly" shaped constantly moving the Red Delicious closer to an ever-changing ideal of a perfect apple, and further from what Jesse Hiatt first bit into on an October day in 1872.
 The fate of the Red Delicious can not be completely blamed on the consumer.  Sports of the Red Delicious have also been chosen for the ease of the grower.  Ones that ripen earlier or are better for long term storage, packing and shipping have also be chosen and propagated over the years.  In short the Red Delicious was shaped by, and perhaps also shaped the global apple market.  Over 40 sports of Red Delicious have now been patented in the United Sates since it's introduction.
Red Delicious grown at the orchards where I have picked tend to be a later ripening apple.  They are one of the last varieties to be harvested, usually in mid to late October.  They are a very hard apple making them difficult to bruise, a plus for pickers.  They are however also highly susceptible to stem pulls and thus need to be finessed off the branch.  The opening in the apple crated by the absence of a stem introduces oxygen into the flesh of the fruit more easily and gives stem-pulled apples a shorter storage life.
I have never had a soft place in my heart for Red Delicious, I usually think of them as a rather tasteless apple that can be found almost anywhere.  I have come to realize however that what I think of today as a Red Delicious, was probably nothing like Hiatt's Hawkeye.  I would very much like to have a bite of that apple.  I realize I can only make a partial judgment of the Red Delicious, which itself won't be impartial, until I take that bite.

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