Good Riddance, Red Delicious Apple

Good Riddance, Red Delicious Apple

One cool thing about the fruit business is that the people in it, starting with the growers, are by and large a heck of a lot more accommodating than people in other businesses. Years ago I covered a lot of industries as the business reporter for a newspaper, and I have to say to this day I’ve never seen competitors who are so friendly with each other.

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The collegial atmosphere is on display in spades nearly every time a grower hosts an event, sharing some of their secrets of success with fellow growers, such as on an International Fruit Tree Association tour. I’ve since asked around, and other industries just aren’t like that; they keep secrets secret.

It even extends to industry media. For example, the first time I visited Washington’s immense apple industry in season, I didn’t stay in a hotel. The longtime editor of Good Fruit Grower, Cal Bosch, insisted I stay with him, as since retirement he and his wife had opened a bed and breakfast.

But he had an ulterior motive. I had written a cover story for the February 1999 issue of American Fruit Grower about ‘Red Delicious’. A lot of people, especially Washington State University’s chief apple breeder at the time, Bruce Barritt, skewered the old variety. Cal had written a lot about ‘Red Delicious’ though the years and was justifiably proud of the industry and its growers, especially in the Okanogan where they claimed to grow the most beautiful ‘Red Delicious’ in the world.

As soon as I got into the kitchen, Cal whipped out a giant, gorgeous ‘Red Delicious’, and insisted I try a top notch King Red that hadn’t been stored forever — at a time when Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storage and other postharvest practices weren’t nearly as good as today.

I took a bite of the apple, and its texture was a lot firmer than probably any ‘Red Delicious’ I had ever had. But the flavor? Cal asked if I thought it was good, and, well, I lied. I told him it was great; there was no way I was going to contradict my gracious host.

I couldn’t help but think of that while in Chicago for the 2018 U.S. Apple Association Outlook & Marketing Conference, where it was announced ‘Red Delicious’ would lose its No. 1 ranking to ‘Gala’ this year. It took a long time to supplant ‘Red Delicious.’

Good riddance, I thought. How many kids had been turned off of apples by the little typey but mealy ‘Red Delicious’ they were served in school? My own kids weren’t immune. When I took them to the weekly farmers’ market, they didn’t want me to buy red apples, only green ones. They were lucky to have a Dad who pushed high-quality fruit to them. How many consumers have been turned off apples as children?

That cover story from 20 years ago, “King Red’s Reign — Is it time to oust good ol’ Red Delicious? Some say yes,” closed with a quote from Grady Auvil, who died in 1998. These words from the legendary Washington grower who championed other varieties, notably ‘Fuji’ and ‘Granny Smith’, are incredibly prescient.

“The ‘Red Delicious’ is dead,” said Auvil, “although it might take 20 years to bury it.”

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Byron Phillips says:

We killed red delicious ourselves. And by that I mean our sales desks. There were strains of red delicious that truly were delicious. But our sales desks don’t know how to sell flavor – they only know how to sell color. So we started growing reds that packed out well with good returns to the grower, but had no flavor because that is what our sales desks could sell – cosmetics over flavor and condition. Older strains with poorer color were left to hang longer in the orchard trying to improve red color, and ended up mealy and soft. It was sad to see, and now we are doing the exact same thing with Gala. The newer gala sports just don’t taste the same as the Standard or Royal, but they have red color. A lot of them don’t even taste like a Gala. Fortunately some of the newer varieties that do have the red color demanded by our sales desks also have great flavor – Envy, Evercrisp, Sugar Bee, Cosmic Crisp, etc. Gala has over-taken reds as #1, but we’ve already killed that variety, too.

Barbara Ann Auer says:

There was a time when the Red Delicious was a delicious apple until they messed with it to make it bigger and prettier. The ones in the stores now are awful. I spent 10 years in NYC in the late 70s and early 80s and the Red Delicious available from the delis were magnificent. Sometimes the good old days really are the good old days!

Jim Collins says:

I grew up, as a baby boomer, in the Sacramento California River Delta which was not really “good” apple country due to lack of color in available varieties of apples at the time. However the few Red and Golden Delicious trees we had sprinkled through the pear and cherry orchards provided the most scrumptious and juiciest fruit you can imagine and nothing like the Reds or other new varieties on the market now. The biggest problem was trying to keep the juice from running down your face, a problem I don’t experience with any current variety. Apple sauce was simple: cook down and mash down peeled Apples and dashes of cinnamon and vanilla if desired. We still make a a similar sauce when we find suitable apples now. I empathize with apple growers: having to graft over Bosc to Golden Bosc just because of looks, not taste was a waste of good resources. I’m with the “blame it on the sales desk” comment below.