The Red Delicious is no longer the dominant apple in American orchards, the U.S. Apple Association said last week, after lasting five decades in the top spot. The Gala apple is now first; Red Delicious second; Granny Smith third. By 2020, the Honeycrisp, which so prized by consumers that they’ll pay higher prices for the privilege of eating one, may crack the growers’ top three.
Red Delicious’ slippage will be mourned by few. As Sarah Yager wrote in the Atlantic in a history of the variety a few years ago, the Red Delicious is a “paradox”: “alluring yet undesirable, the most produced and arguably the least popular apple in the United States.” They’re gorgeous to look at, like a cartoon apple landed in your real-life fruit bowl. It has a deep-red color and perfectly unblemished skins; its bodies always taper to a perfect little five-pointed bottom. But its flesh tastes—as the two enthusiasts who run the apple fan website Orange Pippin write—too sweet, “like a slightly over-ripe melon”; also, “the skin can be quite tough.” In understated tones, Orange Pippin’s expert apple-tasters add: “Overall Red Delicious can be quite a refreshing apple to eat, but its chief characteristic is that it has almost no flavor at all.”
Besides being awful to eat, the Red Delicious is also symbolically hateable. Its popularity is part of a general trend in mid- to late-20th-century American agriculture that privileged sturdy and beautiful varieties over the fragile, ugly, and tasty. The Red Delicious’ beauty and inedibility is symbolic of a much bigger problem with American industrial produce: Red Delicious, supermarket tomatoes, and baby carrots make up a Potemkin village of produce designed to make us feel like we’re “eating healthy” while failing altogether to appetize.
The Red Delicious is the apple we foist on children to make ourselves feel better. My most formative encounters with the Red Delicious, like many people’s, took place during childhood. Red Delicious are a classic “lunchbox apple,” the kind of fruit you get when somebody in charge has decided that the kids need to eat fruit—and those kids are being fed at scale. Nutritionist Ellyn Satter writes that the way to get kids to eat vegetables isn’t to beg, cajole, or reward their consumption, but to “matter-of-factly” model your own enjoyment of produce. Yet how could any sane adult person enjoy the kind of fruits and vegetables American kids are given? When I encountered a Red Delicious, or a salad in a school lunch featuring dry cucumber slices, hard-as-a-bullet cherry tomatoes, and lifeless romaine, I always knew in my heart that the adults pushing this stuff on us wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Kids are smart, and they know bullshit when they see it. Bring on the Galas, and a better tomorrow.