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The “Red Delicious” apple is most widely produced in the U.S. — cruise down the aisles of most any grocery store, and you’ll be sure to find it. But apple connoisseurs rarely have good things to say about how it tastes, with some going so far as to say it’s a fruit that’s been rammed down the throats of American consumers. Kojo explores the history of how the “Red Delicious” conquered America’s apple market, and whether its future lies in markets outside the United States now that new apples are rising to compete with it.
- Sarah Yager Senior Associate Editor, The Atlantic
- Tom Burford Owner, Burford Brothers; Author, "Apples of North America: Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks" (Timber Press, 2013)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on Food Wednesday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, "Midnight At The Pera Palace," author and Georgetown Professor Charles King, explores the history of modern Istanbul through the lens of its fanciest hotel.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, the Red Delicious' reign over America's apple economy, few fruits are as omnipresent as the Red Delicious is at grocery stores, school cafeterias, even gas stations, which makes sense, up until you ponder the following question, does anyone actually like the way they taste? The author of one encyclopedia of apple varieties feels so strongly about the inferiority of Red Delicious that he actually, well, vandalizes them at stores, so they can't be sold.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe says, they're beautiful but disgusting fruit that's been rammed down the throats of American consumers. Then, how did they become the most produced apple in the United States? And are we at a point where tastes are beginning to change? Joining us to ponder the future of the Red Delicious and what it means for American agriculture and American taste buds is Sarah Yager, senior associate editor at The Atlantic. Sarah Yager joins us in studio, welcome.
MS. SARAH YAGERHi, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. Joining us by phone, from Lynchburg, Va. is Tom Burford, he is the owner of Burford Brothers Nursery in Lynchburg. He's an orchard consultant, designer, horticulture historian and the author of "Apples of North America: Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks." Tom Burford, thank you for joining us.
MR. TOM BURFORDIt's my pleasure from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about Red Delicious, give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What is your favorite apple? What do you look for when you're buying an apple? You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDISarah, you write for, The Atlantic, recently, that, "the Red Delicious apple is a giant contradiction, it looks beautiful, it tastes bland. Few people really love it, yet it's the most widely produced apple in America." Where does this story start? How did an apple this unpopular become such an omnipresent element in our food system?
YAGERYeah, so the apple that you see today in grocery stores is almost unrecognizable from the Red Delicious apple that appeared more than a 100 years ago in an Iowa orchard. And it actually began as a volunteer seedling, it popped it between the rose of a farmer's orchard in Iowa and he pulled it out for a couple different seasons, but it kept coming back and finally he decided to just let it grow.
YAGERAnd eventually after it started baring fruit, he submitted it to a contest that a nursery was holding, to find the next, America's apple. And it was selected and from there, began this marketing campaign that brought it to where it is today.
NNAMDIYou say, "if you want to make an allegory, you might see in the Red Delicious, the story of America." What do you mean?
YAGERYes, so that was meant, a little bit as a humorous overstatement. But I think it's true that you do see some strains of the American story in the Red Delicious. You see a pioneer spirit, this little sprout struggling through the dirt. You see entrepreneurs in the marketing campaign of the nursery that bought the rights to the apple, that named it The Delicious. And then you see the, sometimes harmful effects of capitalism, in the superficial, perfectionism and the, sort of, bloating of the apple that you now see in grocery stores.
NNAMDIThe Red Delicious Apple, tracing it can be the story of tracing the story of American itself. That's, of course, a slight exaggeration. But, Tom, before we go farther, apples in agriculture are your life. Your family's been planting things in Virginia since the early 18th century. People call you Professor Apple, but when it comes to the Red Delicious, something inside you snaps, what is it about this apple that you don't like?
BURFORDIt could've been any apple but it happened to -- that one was chosen and very deliberately, it's about the time that the mega-nurseries, as the one the developed it and promoted it, was and they intentionally made it something it wasn't. And that's the mega-nurseries took control of the orchards of America. And they dictated to them what varieties they could grow. It so happened that it coincided with the flight from the farm after the Second World War and that -- there was a tragic loss of one of the great agricultural skills, that is the skill of grafting.
BURFORDSo there was a generation that did not know how to make an apple tree, and so they were at the mercy of the nurseries. And so this was very deliberately done and they -- that loss of a skill of grafting left it to the mega-nurseries to tell what to plant and what you're gonna get and also tragically reducing the quantity of varieties to a few. When there are hundreds and thousands of excellent apple varieties, you go in the supermarket now and it's pretty obscene that there's a dozen showing the face and many of those are not very good.
BURFORDBut that -- and the consumer folded in, they really accepted this and there was a mindset, they would go, "we need apples," you put a bag in the cart and then the next week, the same thing, but when they got home with these bags, they would put them in the fruit bowls, take you one off the top, this is not very good, the rest would deteriorate or they put them in the lunchboxes for the children and they would get discarded there as well.
BURFORDSo it was many years before we discovered that -- and some of us were very naive about it, I was. I grew up in a remote mountain and I -- when I walked out my backdoor, as a youth or a child, there were more than 100 apple varieties, 40 peach varieties, cherries, plums, it was a garden of Eden, there. And I assumed everyone had this. But indeed did...
NNAMDIBut they did not. Tom Burford, he's the owner of Burford Brother's Nursery in Lynchburg, Va., author of the book, "Apples of North America: Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks." He joins us by phone from Lynchburg. In our Washington studio is Sarah Yager, senior associate editor at The Atlantic. We're talking Red Delicious apples and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Ryan, in Chevy Chase, Md. wants to talk about growing. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, Kojo. I was just wanting to add that, I think, there's very few people probably are aware that, when you plant a seed from an apple, it is not going to necessarily give you the variety of the apple from which it came. It could be any number of the thousands of varieties. The only sure way to get that is, like, the gentleman was just discussing, is by grafting, to get the specified variety of the apple that you might be looking for.
NNAMDIAnd as he said that, skill was lost for a generation.
BURFORDYeah, and also, we might add, that the -- it -- time is the diversity of the apple because the apple is not native to America and bags of seeds were brought here and every seed and every apple is a different variety. So the cider orchards were planted and with the genetic material that was there, occasionally, maybe, one in 100,000 would appear an apple and I can sort of envision it now in the 17th century, somebody come over and take a taste of this, it's pretty good.
NNAMDIWell, that's what we're talking about here, taste. What, in your view, Tom Burford, should a good apple express? What does a good apple taste like?
BURFORDIt's in the mouth of the beholder, one could say. Because very few people and I do apple tasting's all over the country and that is the thing when I am standing in front of, with a dozen apple varieties and we are going to taste them all. I said, now, you cannot, if you rate these on a sheet, you can't cheat, because every -- taste is subjective. Everybody tastes differently.
BURFORDAnd so, do you like tart? Do you like sweet or everything in-between? Or do you like it crisp or mushy? Which few do. And, so, one that is the -- that we have begun to eat again with our mouths and not our eyes, that is what each person should do.
NNAMDISarah wrote about a trick that you like to play at supermarkets that sell Red Delicious.
NNAMDISomething you like to do with the apples. What is that?
BURFORDIt's sort of a perverse act but I like to go into a supermarket and I know the produce managers nearby and I will take one of those very large waxed, heavily waxed, Red Delicious and take my thumb nail and write T-O-M, my name in the wax and put it back and often these...
NNAMDIPut it back?
BURFORDPut it back in the display.
NNAMDIYou broke it, you own it.
BURFORDAnd he -- the produce manager will come up and say, "oh, you know, we can't sell that now." And I said, "That's my point." So...
NNAMDIYou've never been arrested for this?
BURFORDNo. The -- I try to go in disguise.
NNAMDISarah, how did the appearance of the Red Delicious factor into its expediential growth in the 20th century?
YAGERWell, it starts in 1923, which is when an orchard, that's in New Jersey, who'd bought one of the trees from the, from the nursery company that had the rights to the Red Delicious, contacted the nursery to say that, one limb on one of his trees was producing apples that were redder than all of the other fruit on the tree. And that people were lining up to buy them. And, of course, that interested the nursery, which dispatched the president immediately by train to go and buy the limb of that tree, which he bought for the equivalent of $83,000 today, $6,000 back in 1923.
YAGERAnd that started the error of fruit improvement where apples were these genetic variations were selected for impropriated to make apples more and more appealing to the eye, and as a consequence, as growers were selecting for redder strains, other qualities like taste and texture got lost along the way.
NNAMDITo what degree is this, a story about the influence of big agriculture, as Tom was talking about, in the United States? It seems large growers had outsized influence here.
YAGERThat's true. I think, initially, it was really a problem of consumer preferences. In the early days of the Red Delicious, starting with that 1923 apple, people were really lining up to buy the apples that looked perfect on the outside, thinking that they would be the same way on the inside. But as the nurseries got more and more power, as the Red Delicious became more and more profitable, there was less investment in other varieties and, as Tom noted, the art of grafting was lost.
YAGERAnd so, by the time consumers started to turn on the apple and to want other options, there really weren't any in the supermarket. And as I write in my story, Tom has compared those -- has called the Red Delicious apple, the largest compost maker in the country. Back in the late last century, just given how people would buy them and then be unable to bring themselves to actually eat them.
NNAMDIHere is Sue in Alexandria, Va. Sue, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUEThank you very much. I'm enjoying this conversation. As a big apple eater, I just wanted to send the red delicious because I grew up eating it essentially in the '60s up in New England. And they really were delicious back then. I mean, I don't know what's happened, as you say, maybe with the genetics and the lack of grafting and all. They never had wax on them. They were always white and crisp in the inside and sweet. And the red was a deep natural red color. And they were good. And so I just find it's very sad to me what's happening and I'm (unintelligible) ...
BURFORDThe wax is to extend the shelf life. And that produce manager knows exactly when that is going to start degrading or deteriorating. And that's why I caution everyone, unless they have a particular use, don't buy apples when they are put on sale because they probably have three or four days of crispness left in them.
NNAMDITom, what are the long-term effects of selective breeding for traits like the color of the red delicious? How did the apples change overtime?
BURFORDYeah well, usually the cultivars were selected that would reflect something a bit different. And there was another angle that the mega nurseries had as well. And it's often done today with the Fuji. And that is they -- after market then a particular name variety of red delicious or Fuji or gala, then they would seize doing that and say, we have something new for you orchardists. We have the new improved apple.
BURFORDSo it's a capitalistic thing, as Sarah was mentioning in order to profit. It's not the good taste of it that interests the mega nurseries. It's how much profit they can take, how many can we sell.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on Food Wednesday about the red delicious apple and take your views on it at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing apples with Sarah Yager, senior associate editor at the Atlantic and Tom Burford, owner of Burford Brothers Nursery in Lynchburg, Va. He's an orchard consultant, designer, horticulture historian and author of the book "Apples of North America: Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers and Cooks." Dennis in Silver Spring, Md. would like to point out something about red delicious we may not have considered. Dennis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DENNISOkay. I just wanted to mention, first of all, I don't have any connection whatsoever with the apple industry and I've never been a fan of the red delicious. As a matter of fact, it was always my least favorite. However, sometimes I go on a website called NutritionFacts.org, which is put together by a man named Dr. Michael Greger and is totally about what he does is he synopsizes nutrition research. And apparently there was a study that came out about six years ago that said that the red delicious apple was the superior apple when it comes to content of antioxidants. I was wondering if anybody would be interested in commenting on that. Thank you.
YAGERYeah, I have heard that before. And, you know, the good thing about the red delicious having this thick skin is that it can be packed with pigment and it can be packed with things like antioxidants that can be good for your health. You know, that thicker skin was something that was developed sort of by consequence of a lack of attention to flavor as growers were selecting for redder strains.
YAGERBut the thick skin is also something that growers were very interested in propagating because it's less susceptible to bruising and helps protect the apple from internal damage as it's being shipped around the country, can be stored -- apples with thicker skin can be stored for longer. So all in all, the thick skin is something that's much better for growers than for consumers but there may be some side benefits to it for health.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Denise. Tom, if you go into a grocery store now you have a lot of choices. People feel really strongly about Fujis, about galas, about honey crisps. How and when did those apples begin to gain popularity?
BURFORDWell, when they were introduced and the trio of Braeburn, Fuji and gala sort of changed the consumer's approach. When they went in the market in a short period of time, the consumer went in and confronted the produce manager again and said, I sort of like these three. What else do you have? So for the first time consumer demand happened. And then a flood of new deliberately-made varieties from the research stations appeared. And then coupled with those great apple varieties of the past with merit that are appearing in the market.
BURFORDSo there are some markets in the coming years will have -- you will walk in and it'll be like a cheese shop. Instead of three different cheeses, you will have hundreds of varieties of apples to choose as well as cheeses. So the whole food market is changing in that respect. And also the education for food and for preparing food is changing drastically and very fast. So I know I do -- in the month of March of last year I did -- and how I did it I don't know is -- because I was moving over a large geographical area -- I did 15 grafting workshops because I think that's the key. It's one note out of...
NNAMDIYes, one more lost generation.
BURFORDYeah, hadn't noticed it. If grandfather's old apple tree is dying and you want to make another one, you know how to do it. And...
NNAMDISpeaking of choices, here is Harry in Vienna, Va. Harry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HARRYHello. My current favorite is the Braeburn apple but to comment on the red delicious, about 65 years ago there was a big red apple called the Washington State apple. It was crispy and juicy and big. And it was advertised as having five bumps on the bottom, which we were supposed to look for when we went shopping. And it sort of seems to have devolved into the red delicious, which is kind of pulpy and not very tasty.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Sarah, speaking of Washington State, the president of the Washington Apple Commission told you that he's recommending that more than half of his state's red delicious yield be shipped abroad. What's his thought process?
YAGERYeah, so you mentioned how there are more varieties available now in the supermarket. And that has allowed consumers, for the first time, to be able to buy something other than red delicious. And they're doing so in droves. So the number of red delicious trees being planted has been decreasing since 2000, which is around the time that their varieties like the Fuji and the gala really took hold as a result of those consumer preferences shifting.
YAGERAnd -- but even as demand from American consumers has been declining, there has been a growing interest from other countries in that apple. And so Todd Fryhover is identifying an opportunity in other markets that doesn't exist anymore in the United States.
NNAMDIWhat's the international market like for red delicious?
YAGEROutside of North America there's a big market in Asia. Indonesia, India and China are the biggest markets.
NNAMDIWhy do they like them?
YAGERWell, you get different answers but, you know, one thing I've heard is that in countries where apples are less familiar, it's similar to American consumers trying to buy the best papaya or the best star fruit. Or, you know, a few decades ago maybe the mango, something that isn't as familiar where you're perhaps less likely to be really judgmental about how it tastes and feels in your mouth. Todd Fryhover, who's the president of the Washington Apple Commission told me that in China the color red symbolizes good luck, so there may also be something to the appearance of the apple that's compelling.
NNAMDIOnce again, eating with their eyes and not with their mouths. We got an email from Taylor who says, "It surprises me that so many still eat red delicious. It's the one apple I avoid in the store. With so many apples available, why would someone still buy such a bland fruit. The only sue for the fruit, I can tell, is applesauce or baked goods where one can just pour in the sugar to compensate for flavor." But Tom Burford, which of the newer breeds of apples excite you the most? Some people are loyal at an almost religious level to honey crisp.
BURFORDYeah, that certainly is becoming a mainstream apple. And the condition of the honey crisp is that it grows well in New England and the upper Midwest. It does not grow well in the middle Atlantic area. It just does not develop the flavor and that is very significant with the honey crisp. And -- because the honey crisp, like the old Macintosh and so many of the winesap has a distinctive taste. And we call it the Macintosh taste or the -- now I call it the honey crisp taste. So -- but it is also being highly marketed.
BURFORDAnd the supermarkets, actually their distribution system can exclude many varieties. It depends on the negotiation and what is done. For instance, local-produced fruit in -- with supermarket chains is not possible for marketing except occasionally they will do it for tokenism. And -- but they are generally excluded. And many years ago I tried calling a major super chain's headquarters in the middle of the country and saying I had 500 bushels of this wonderful Roxbury russet to market and would they be interested. And they said, no way, and hung up.
NNAMDISarah, why did apple growers need what was essentially a giant bailout from the federal government in the year 2000 and what did the red delicious have to do with it?
BURFORDOh my. The story -- it had so engrained itself in the American food psyche that the red delicious was dictating to we the people's government. And so it's most unfortunate that it happened but it had a good sort of backlash. The growers who were desperate financially decided at that time, even after the bailout, not to plant so many red delicious again.
YAGERRight. And just to emphasize the reason the bailout was needed in the first place is again just the fact that the apple had had such a strong reign through much of the 20th century. Growers hadn't really had to worry about whether or not consumers actually wanted the apples because they had total control of the market. And then when some other varieties started coming in and threatening to edge in on the red delicious territory, they really weren't prepared. And as Tom mentioned, and as I write in my piece, decisions for planting were really being made by boardrooms at that point. And they just didn't respond fast enough to changing preferences.
NNAMDITwo issues I need to get to, even though we're running out of time. The first, I'll let Kareem in Springfield, Va. handle. Kareem, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KAREEMHello, Kojo. Great show. Thank you very much. Question about the European ban on American apples. What does it mean for the American consumers if Europeans cannot eat our apples? What can we do for this? That's it.
YAGERYou know, I'm not as familiar with the European ban. I know there is currently a Chinese ban on apples, red and golden delicious I believe from Washington State, which has to do with some concerns over diseased shipments. But that is expected to be lifted even for this harvest. So shouldn't, in the long run, cause too much trouble for growers.
NNAMDIAnd Tom Burford, going in the other direction, there's a new battle on the horizon, apples from China are bound for Washington State. Is it possible they could find their way to markets on the east coast? What should people know about Chinese apples?
BURFORDYeah, they will get pretty good reception because they're going to be cheap, wholesale cheap. And so the red delicious mega growers in Washington State are welcoming this. And it's sort of a -- once again a perverse horticultural event. Because here -- well, any apple that comes into America from offshore is obscene to me because the apple is not native to America. Yet early America proved to be the greatest fruit-growing, apple-growing region in the world. And why do we buy them from offshore?
NNAMDIIt's something that is a complete mystery to Tom Burford but I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Tom Burford is the owner of Burford Brothers Nursery in Lynchburg, Va. He's an orchard consultant, designer, horticulture historian, author of "Apples of North America: Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers and Cooks." Sarah Yager is a senior associate at The Atlantic. Thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, "Midnight at the Pera Palace" author and Georgetown professor Charles King joins us to explore the history of modern Istanbul through the lens of its fanciest hotel. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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