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.