Consider the fate of America's favorite apple. It emerged from an Iowa orchard in 1880 as a round, blushed yellow fruit of surpassing sweetness.
But like a figure in a TV makeover show, it was an apple that its handlers could not leave alone. They altered its shape. They made it firmer and more juicy. They made it so it could be stored in hermetically sealed warehouses for 12 months. Along the way, they changed its color and hence its name -- to Red Delicious.
The only problem was the American consumer, whose verdict on the made-over apple has become increasingly clear: Of the two words in the Red Delicious name, one can no longer be believed.
"They eventually went too far and ended up with apples the public didn't want to eat," said Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and retired orchardist in Pittsboro, N.C.
In the 1980s heyday of the Red Delicious, it represented three-quarters of the harvest in Washington state, epicenter of the apple industry. By 2000, it made up less than half, and in 2003, the crop had shrunk to just 37 percent of the state's harvest of 103 million boxes. Red Delicious remains the single largest variety produced in the state, but others are ascending in market share as rapidly as Red Delicious is dropping, notably Fuji and Gala.
The reliance on Red Delicious helped push Washington's apple industry to the edge in the late 1990s and into this decade. Depressed prices for Red Delicious, weaker foreign markets and stiffer competition from abroad, including apple concentrate from China, contributed to major losses in the nation's apple industry, which mounted to $700 million in 2001, according to the U.S. Apple Association. The industry has recovered somewhat since then, in part because reduced harvests have buoyed prices.
Who's to blame for the decline of Red Delicious? Everyone, it seems. Consumers were drawn to the eye candy of brilliantly red apples, so supermarket chains paid more for them. Thus, breeders and nurseries patented and propagated the most rubied mutations, or "sports," that they could find, and growers bought them by the millions, knowing that these thick-skinned wonders also would store for ages.
"Did they do it because it has less flavor? Obviously not," said Eugene M. Kupferman, a post-harvest specialist at Washington State University's tree fruit research center in Wenatchee, Wash. "They did it because it has better legs and they are getting more money for it."
The Washington harvest begins in mid-August and runs to late October, and most apples sold through December are simply stored in refrigerated warehouses. Fruit shipped later in this cycle is kept in a more sophisticated environment called controlled-atmosphere storage -- airtight rooms where the temperatures are chilly, the humidity high and the oxygen levels reduced to a bare minimum to arrest aging. Last year's fruit will be sold through September, just as the new harvest is in full swing.
Storage apples must be picked before all their starches turn to sugar. Pick too late, and the apple turns mealy in the supermarket, but pick too soon, and the apple will never taste sweet. Growers test for optimum conditions, but today's popular strains of Red Delicious turn color two to three weeks before harvest, making it difficult for pickers to distinguish an apple that is ready from one that isn't.
Some strains "develop full red color in mid-August," said Stephen S. Miller, a research horticulturist for the USDA's Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va. "Physiologically, that apple is still as green as grass."
The grower could deliver a better apple by harvesting a tree in two or three waves -- the outside fruit ripens earlier than fruit in the center of the tree. This is done for Galas and other premium varieties, but the prices for Red Delicious are so depressed that farmers can't afford that. "You would put yourself out of business," said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., a major grower in Wenatchee. In addition, the redder strains' thicker skins, found to be rich in antioxidants, taste bitter to many palates.
As an industry, "we weren't consistent with the eating quality, and fairly soon, that erodes the base," said Gip Redman, manager of field services for the Holtzinger Fruit Co., a major packer and shipper based in Yakima, Wash.
Washington growers are seeking to spring back with intensively planted orchards of more lucrative varieties, better storage practices and new marketing strategies, including an emphasis on organic fruit. But if the future for growers in the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys looks brighter, the fate of the Red Delicious appears bleaker.
"You are sort of writing an obituary," said Calhoun, whose orchard grew hundreds of heirloom varieties that defined an age in which apples were regional and seasonal, with only a few strains suited to keeping to January. Now, the globalization of agriculture and high-tech storage give the consumer apples 12 months a year.
Dozens of strains of Red Delicious have been developed by breeders since the original appeared in Madison County, Iowa, though only a handful are widely used. Redman says the industry has moved to make Red Delicious more consistently high in quality, "but once you lose that shelf space, I don't think you get that back. The consumer wants a choice."
The decline of one of the most widely grown apples in history is momentous to observers like Calhoun. Unlike, say, the McIntosh, a wildling that made its way into commerce slowly, the Red Delicious was groomed for stardom from birth.
In the 1880s, a mail-order nurseryman named Clarence Stark held a competition to find an apple to replace the Ben Davis, a variety grown extensively in orchards from Pennsylvania to Missouri. At the same time, Jesse Hiatt, a farmer in Peru, Iowa, was trying to interest nurseries in buying and propagating a seedling he had raised and named the Hawkeye. Stark bit, so to speak, paid Hiatt for the rights, and then renamed the seedling the Delicious as a marketing ploy. When Stark's successors, in a similar stunt, found and named the Golden Delicious growing in West Virginia in 1914, the Delicious became Red Delicious.
At the end of the 19th century, a group of young and forward-thinking entrepreneurs settled in Washington state knowing that the high valley slopes would produce optimum conditions to grow apples on a massive scale, which could be shipped by railroad to eastern markets. At first, they relied on a storage apple called Winesap but in the 20th century developed a liking for the Red Delicious.
Its dominance was secured by the breeding of smaller, more productive trees in the 1940s and the advent of controlled-atmosphere storage in the 1960s.
Apart from its keeping qualities, the Red Delicious was a variety Washington growers loved because they could raise it better than orchardists in other states. The abundant sunshine and cool nights of the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys produced a fruit that was far redder and elongated and more distinctively lobed than Jesse Hiatt's Hawkeye, which was rounder and yellow-green with only a modest amount of red blushing and striping.
In spite of the wholesale replanting with other varieties, Redman of Holtzinger Fruit can't imagine a Washington landscape without reds.
"It's still a good eating apple and a very popular one. This is the best place in the world to grow Red Delicious, so we'll never do away with it," he said.
Stemilt Growers' Pepperl agrees, saying that "everything gets better or goes away, and I think it's going to get better. It's one of prettiest apples we have, it's got a long history and it's high in antioxidants."
Calhoun, the apple historian, is not as sure. "You could live a lifetime and never see a Ben Davis these days." The Red Delicious "is an apple that has done its duty and is on its way out."
That view is borne out at the Brookville Super Market in Chevy Chase, where manager Sidney Hersh offers Red Delicious at 20 cents a pound cheaper than Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji and Gala varieties but sees the others outselling it by as much as 2 to 1.
"People want something better," he said. "I would say in the past couple of years, something has changed."