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The temptation is back

Washington apples are sweet, juicy and crisp again. And they're not Red Delicious.

October 23, 2002|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Wenatchee, Wash.

Walk into the gift shop of the Washington State Apple Commission, and you see red. Just about everything carries a Red Delicious motif. There are Red Delicious postcards, Red Delicious doormats, Red Delicious T-shirts, even images of Red Delicious apples erupting out of American flags.

Yet leave the commission, tour the surrounding countryside, and farmers are firing up their buzz saws, felling and burning Red Delicious orchards as fast as they can raise the money to replant them. During the last four years, some 60,000 acres of Red Delicious have been replaced with new varieties that don't just look nice, they taste good. Sweetness, spice, juiciness and a rowdy autumn crunch have all returned to Washington apples.

We weren't wrong to think that these qualities were lost. For the better part of 20 years, from the early 1970s to the late '80s, apples fell from paradise. Good apples became so rare that some of us wondered if we'd imagined the spicy and bright fruit of our childhoods. We hadn't. New Yorkers really had developed a passion for the almost painfully tart Winesaps, Missourians loved the sweet Jonathans, Northern Californians the heady, old world aromatics of Gravensteins.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 268 words Type of Material: Correction
Apple trees -- Allan Bros. in Yakima, Wash., farms 700 acres of apple trees. A story in Wednesday's Food section gave an incorrect number of trees.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 30, 2002 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 2 inches; 106 words Type of Material: Correction
Apple trees -- Allan Bros. in Yakima, Wash., farms 700 acres of apple trees. A story last Wednesday gave an incorrect number of trees.

Those who knew the original Delicious apple before it became unrecognizably red and the emblem of every packing house in Washington, even missed that. Originally called the Hawkeye, this real Delicious came out of Iowa, where a farmer failed to kill it after accidentally mowing it down several times. It was subsequently picked up by a prominent nursery, declared to be Delicious, and heavily promoted in the newly developing western apple regions as the Next Big Thing.

And it was a very respectable apple, says Washington State University flavor chemist John Fellman. He and Preston Andrews, a WSU horticulturist, lead a tour of the university's research orchard, where more than 100 historic varieties of apples grow. Locals pay to pick their own here. It may be the only pick-your-own orchard selling Yellow Newtowns, the type that Ben Franklin had shipped to himself in London. Fellman plucks a striped apple with a faintly yellow background and tosses it to me.

"That's a Red Delicious," he says. It sure doesn't look like one. Red Delicious apples, explains Fellman, were not always so deeply, uniformly red. I bite it. It's sweet, with firm almost-cream-colored flesh with good perfume.

By contrast, the commodity fruit known as Red Delicious are "sports," says Fellman, mutations promoted in an unending quest for redness. Packing houses grade by color, and began offering premiums for the reddest specimens. Sharp-eyed farmers spotted branches bearing particularly red fruit and propogated them. Eventually more than 100 sports were developed into the red, redder and reddest commercial varieties that we know today.

As the Red Delicious started looking less like itself and more like something out of "Snow White," Fellman began studying the pigments and found the darker they got, the more bitter the skin. He warned apple producers, but they didn't listen. The line from packers was: They'd never had a box of apples returned because they didn't taste good.

The New Zealand invasion

By the late 1980s, the industry had just about every horticulturalist in Washington worried sick. The state's leading farm advisor, Kathleen Willemsen, alerted them to a wave of new varieties from New Zealand appearing in supermarkets. These imports were even selling in Washington. Even out of cold store, their scent and snap awoke dormant memories of good eating apples.

Willemsen was impressed by the new breeds, and went to New Zealand to study them. The Braeburns were tart, a sharp reminder of apples past for Winesap lovers, while the Gala was an aromatic cross between the perfectly luscious yellow American apple, the Golden Delicious, and the most revered aromatic apple of England, the English Cox Orange Pippin. She pointed to the island nation raiding their markets. The Red Delicious growers ignored her.

By 1998, after 10 years of the New Zealand incursion, WSU horticulturalist Bruce Barritt was beside himself with frustration at the growers. He railed that if they didn't start breeding for taste, for the eating pleasure of consumers, they would be out of business.

Almost instantly, he was proven right. At the time, 60% of the state's apple crop was devoted to Red Delicious. A third of Washington production went to the Far East. The Asian market collapsed and more than 20% of Washington apple growers were swept away.

A chastened, bruised industry came to Barritt. The state clearly needed new apples, tasty ones, but the most extensive breeding program was 3,000 miles away, at Cornell University in Geneva, N.Y. This research station had already given the world a succession of new apples, including the Empire and the highly regarded Jonagold. Barritt's dream for Washington growers was the Northwest equivalent of a Jonagold, a calling card fruit for the apple state.

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