Apologies to all Red Delicious lovers, but the Red Delicious is not a very delicious apple – at least to me. Even so, it’s one of the most popularly grown apples in America. Its characteristic profile – long with five prominent bumps at the base – has been immortalized as the logo of Washington-grown apples since the 1960s. It really is a perfect looking apple. Unfortunately, though, its bland, cottony flavor belies those sharp looks. It wasn’t always this way, though.
The original Red Delicious was found growing on Jesse Hiatt’s farm near Peru, Iowa. Hiatt had tried to kill the tree several times, but each year the root sent up new shoots so he finally gave up and let it grow. When the tree finally bore its first fruit in 1872, he fell in love with its sweet flavor and perfume-y aroma. The apples weren’t the deep, uniformly red color we know today but rather streaked with shades of red and yellow. Hiatt named his new find “Hawkeye.”
In the 1890s, Hiatt entered his apple in a contest sponsored by the Stark Brothers Nursery of Missouri to find the best new apple. Clarence Stark loved the Hawkeye and declared it the best in the country. He purchased the rights to propagate the Hawkeye, renamed it Delicious (the Yellow Delicious would not be found until the early 20th century so no color distinction was yet necessary), and spent nearly a million dollars promoting it to apple growers and eaters. By World War II, the Red Delicious had become America’s favorite apple.
But popularity has its downsides in the fruit world. As production and breeding of the apple increased, the Red Delicious began to change as taste took a backseat to durability and appearance in the global apple market. The apple became more symbolic of perfection rather than perfection itself, which has, perhaps, contributed to its decline in popularity in recent years.