The Awful Reign of the Red Delicious

How the worst apple took over the United States, and continues to spread

At the supermarket near his home in central Virginia, Tom Burford likes to loiter by the display of Red Delicious. He waits until he spots a store manager. Then he picks up one of the glossy apples and, with a flourish, scrapes his fingernail into the wax: T-O-M.

“We can’t sell that now,” the manager protests.

To which Burford replies, in his soft Piedmont drawl: “That’s my point.”

Burford, who is 79 years old, is disinclined to apple destruction. His ancestors scattered apple seeds in the Blue Ridge foothills as far back as 1713, and he grew up with more than 100 types of trees in his backyard orchard. He is the author of Apples of North America, an encyclopedia of heirloom varieties, and travels the country lecturing on horticulture and nursery design. But his preservationist tendencies stop short of the Red Delicious and what he calls the “ramming down the throats of American consumers this disgusting, red, beautiful fruit.”

His words contain the paradox of the Red Delicious: alluring yet undesirable, the most produced and arguably the least popular apple in the United States. It lurks in desolation. Bumped around the bottom of lunch bags as schoolchildren rummage for chips or shrink-wrapped Rice Krispies treats. Waiting by the last bruised banana in a roadside gas station, the only produce for miles. Left untouched on hospital trays, forlorn in the fruit bowl at hotel breakfast buffets, bereft in nests of gift-basket raffia.

For at least 70 years, the Red Delicious has dominated apple production in the United States. But since the turn of the 21st century, as the market has filled with competitors—the Gala, the Fuji, the Honeycrisp—its lead has been narrowing. Annual output has plunged. And even still, a gap is growing between supply and demand from American consumers. Earlier this month, Todd Fryhover, the president of the Washington Apple Commission—whose growers produce the majority of apples in the United States—recommended that this harvest, up to two-thirds of the state’s Red Delicious yield be exported.

How did such an unlikeable apple become the most ubiquitous in the country? And as its dominion here ends, where will it invade next?

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If you want to make an allegory of the Red Delicious, you might see in it the story of America: 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. In the 1870s, Jesse Hiatt, an Iowa farmer, discovered a mutant seedling in his orchard of Yellow Bellflower trees. He chopped it down, but the next season, it sprang back through the dirt. He chopped it down again. It sprang back again. “If thee must grow,” he told the intrepid sprout, “thee may.”

A decade later, Hiatt’s tree bore its first fruit. The apples were elongated globes with red-and-gold striped skin, crisp flesh, and a five-pointed calyx. In 1893, when Stark Brothers’ Nursery of Louisiana, Missouri, held a contest to find a replacement for the Ben Davis—then the most widely planted apple in the country, strapping and good-looking but bland—Hiatt submitted his new variety, which he called the Hawkeye. “My, that’s delicious,” Clarence Stark, the company’s president, reportedly said after his first bite.

But not for the first time in apple lore, one sweet taste precipitated a fall. Stark Brothers’ soon secured the rights to the Hawkeye, changed its name to the Stark Delicious (only after the branding of the Golden Delicious, in 1914, did it become the Red Delicious), and began an ambitious marketing campaign. Over the next two decades, the nursery spent $750,000 to promote the new apple, dispatching traveling salesmen to farms across the country and exhibiting the Delicious at the 1904 World’s Fair. After the completion of the Great Northern Railway, Clarence Stark sent trainloads of seedlings to newly established orchards in the Columbia River Valley, their leaves trembling as the engines rumbled West.

With its hardy rootstocks and juicy, curvaceous fruit, the Red Delicious quickly became a favorite of growers and consumers from coast to coast—and as its commercial success grew, so did its distance from Hiatt’s Hawkeye. In 1923, a New Jersey orchardist wrote to the Starks to report that one limb of a tree he had purchased from the nursery was producing crimson apples while those on the other limbs remained green. A chance genetic mutation that made the apples redden earlier had also given them a deeper, more uniform color, and customers were lining up for a taste. Paul Stark, one of Clarence’s sons, travelled up from Missouri and laid down $6,000 for the limb. News of the deal spread, and soon The Gettysburg Times reported that more than 500 horticulturists from 30 states had gathered at the orchard to discuss the “freak bud” that produced “the marvel apple of the age.” Their meeting marked the beginning of an era of fruit improvement, as growers began to seek out and cultivate similar mutations.

By the 1940s, the Red Delicious had become the country’s most popular apple, with the broad shoulders and lipstick shine of a Golden Age Hollywood star. The cosmetic changes were a boon for industrial agriculturalists: Apples that turned rosy before they were fully ripe could be picked earlier and stored longer, and skins with more red pigment tended to be thicker, which extended shelf life and hid bruises. But as genes for beauty were favored over those for taste, the skins grew tough and bitter around mushy, sugar-soaked flesh. Still, by the 1980s, the Red Delicious made up 75 percent of the crop produced in Washington. By the time selective breeding had taken its toll, according to Burford, a few big nurseries controlled the market, planting decisions were made from the remove of boardrooms, and consumers didn’t have many varieties to choose from. The Red Delicious became “the largest compost-maker in the country,” he said, as shoppers routinely bought the apples and threw them away.

Then in the 1990s, new varieties that American growers had originally developed for overseas markets—including the Gala and the Fuji—began to edge into the domestic market. Shoppers had been “eating with their eyes and not their mouths,” Burford said. And now their taste buds had been awakened. A sudden shift in consumer preferences, paired with growing competition from orchards in China, took the industry by surprise. Between 1997 and 2000, U.S. apple growers lost nearly $800 million in surplus crop. They had “made the apples redder and redder, and prettier and prettier, and they just about bred themselves out of existence,” a marketing director for one Northwestern fruit company told The New York Times, shortly after President Bill Clinton approved the largest bailout in the history of the apple industry.

Since then, Red Delicious production has declined by 40 percent. While the apple is still by far the most common in the U.S.—growers produced 54 million bushels of Red Delicious in 2011, compared to just 33 million bushels of its closest competitor, the Gala—the industry is adjusting to a changing market. Todd Fryhover told me that new quality controls like ethylene inhibitors have helped ensure that apples arrive fresh and crisp in the supermarket, but he also acknowledged that tastes have shifted. Exports of Washington’s Red Delicious yield have hovered around 48 percent in recent years. This year, Fryhover recommends that 60 to 65 percent of the apples be shipped abroad. “You can’t keep producing the same thing all the time and ignore what people are asking for,” he told me. American consumers “want Galas, they want Fujis, they want Goldens, Grannies.” International buyers provide demand for the Red Delicious that “currently doesn’t exist in the U.S.”

Beyond North America, the biggest export markets for the Red Delicious are in Southeast Asia. China, which now produces more apples than any other country in the world, has in recent years been a major buyer of Red Delicious from Washington orchards. There, Fryhover points out, the color red symbolizes good fortune. But according to Tom Burford, the international success of the Red Delicious largely relies on targeting shoppers in places where the fruit is unfamiliar. Like Americans just over a decade ago, he said, “they are unaware of what an apple should express.”

In the homeland of the Red Delicious, meanwhile, consumers are slowly returning to apples they can believe in.