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Why Pretty Apples Lose When It Comes to Taste

The Red Delicious may be gross, but it wasn't always that way.
Sep 15, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

This story usually starts in an Iowa apple orchard in the late 1800s. That’s where the apple that came to be known as the Red Delicious originated, the feral tree persistently sprouting up between two cultivated rows of Yellow Bellflower apples.

A descendant of that tree stands today, outside Peru, Iowa, but its fruit bears little resemblance to the Edenic red apples that dominated the American market for decades. Sarah Yager’s recent Atlantic article, “The Awful Reign of the Red Delicious,” stops by that tree as she charts the apple's story from unwanted beginnings to market saturation. “If you want to make an allegory of the Red Delicious, you might see in it the story of America,” she writes. “Confident intrusion on inhabited soil, opportunity won in a contest of merit, success achieved through hard work, integrity pulverized in the machinery of industrial capitalism.”

It’s not an unreasonable stretch to make, mapping an apple, symbol of symbols, against the narrative of a country. After all, Jesse Haitt, who owned the orchard, repeatedly cut down the tree, which was breaking ranks with the neat rows around it. After it repeatedly regrew, he went from trying to kill it to nurturing it, work that was rewarded 10 years later when it first bore fruit. The apple, dubbed Hawkeye after the nickname of the state where it originated, won a competition held by Stark Bro’s nursery in 1883; the following year, the company bought the rights to propagate the tree, which was renamed Delicious.

But as the variety took off, dominating orchards around the country, farmers back in Iowa were less than pleased with their apple's success. “The flavor of our home-grown apples is so much superior to the western irrigated product that it seems a shame they should monopolize our markets,” Woodward Clum wrote in The Iowa Horticulturalist in 1917. “See the reputation they have won for the Delicious apple, and yet the Delicious originated in an Iowa orchard. They have reaped the glory for this wonderful apple, and it hurts to have them do it.”

At the time, Iowa was one of the country’s leading apple growers. That agricultural heritage may be a thing of the past, but, again, a tree grown from the same roots as Jesse Haitt’s Hawkeye still stands. Thanks to Seed Savers Exchange and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, Hawkeye apple trees are growing across Iowa and around the country. The apples aren’t the “disgusting, red, beautiful fruit” that Tom Burford, author of Apples of North America, describes in the Atlantic story.

Whereas in the Atlantic story Burford is shown to embody all that is loathsome about the Red Delicious, the 79-year-old orchardist appears to be a fan of its forebearer. He writes in his encyclopedic book that the “sweet, floral aroma of Hawkeye is one of my earliest olfactory memories.” You could infer that his hatred of the apple’s modern guise is colored by how little it resembles the original fruit. The smaller, yellow-streaked apple is described as “the original Delicious, the one that earned the name,” in the catalog of Trees of Antiquity, an heirloom fruit tree nursery. “This genuine original strain of the world's most widely grown apple has never been improved on as far as eating quality, superior in flavor to all Red Delicious strains.”

While the tree first grew in Iowa, what came to be the most popular apple in the country arguably comes from New Jersey. That’s where, in 1923, a farmer discovered that one of his Red Delicious trees was growing perfectly red fruit. As Yager writes, Stark Bro's bought cuttings from the tree for $6,000—more than $80,000 in today’s dollars. The “disgusting, red, beautiful fruit” we’re so familiar with was born.

Haitt’s apple was undoubtedly changed by “the machinery of industrial capitalism,” but its integrity wasn’t obliterated altogether. If the Red Delicious offers one fatalistic allegory for America, Hawkeye represents another archetype, perhaps: the lone original, a sort of Marlboro Man of fruit. In 1940, an ice storm hit Iowa orchards hard, bringing about a frozen end to the industry in the state. The original Hawkeye tree was split in half that winter, but a few years later shoots came up from the stump, and it regrew once again.

This September, Pivot TV will feature an entire month of “Food for Thought” programming to explore what's really happening in the American agriculture system. For more information, head over to the "Food for Thought" page to find out when the next program airs and take action.