Close your eyes and think of an apple. Is it shiny and red? Big and curvy at the top and narrow down at the bottom? Yes, you're imagining a Red Delicious, the most ubiquitous apple in the country. Now picture yourself biting into it. Your teeth sink into the soft, mealy flesh, which is mildly sweet, slightly bitter, and uncomfortably dry ... yeah, these apples are not great. So how'd they get so popular?

Delicious Domination

The Starks secured the rights to the apple and renamed it the Stark Delicious in 1914 in response to the popularity of the unrelated Golden Delicious. In 1923, the Stark Delicious experienced another mutation when a branch in New Jersey began producing apples that turned red before any of their companions. Paul Stark, son of Clarence, laid down $6,000 for the branch of striking fruit. The Red Delicious was finally born.

Since Red Delicious apples turn red before they're ripe, they could be picked earlier and stored longer. Plus, the thick skin made them more resistant to bruises, and the dark red color masked the bruises that did appear. Apple growers began favoring these traits, resulting in a redder, curvier, more visually appealing Red Delicious. The thing is, they didn't breed their apples for taste. But the Red Delicious was iconic and ad-friendly, so its failure to thrill the tastebuds was no obstacle to its national popularity. By the '40s, it had eclipsed most of its competitors. By the '80s, it was virtually the only apple available. And by the '90s, in the words of "Apples of North America" author Tom Burford, the Red Delicious had become "the largest compost-maker in the country."

Apple Brand-y

Red Delicious apples are still one of the top five apples produced in the United States, but just barely. The top of the list is now the Gala, followed by the Honeycrisp, the Fuji, the Granny Smith, and finally the Red Delicious. So how did the most monopolizing fruit ever get dethroned? Simple: branding.

Unlike bananas, strawberries, and pretty much every other fruit, apples are marketed on their diversity. That really kicked off in the '90s, when today's best-known varieties made their debut. These new apples cost a bit more than the ones Americans had been accustomed to — exotic ones like Japan's Fuji and New Zealand's Gala had to cover the costs of importation, and new, thin-skinned apples like the Honeycrisp were more expensive to transport without bruising. Still, consumers were eager to pay that price. Each new apple had its own distinct look and flavor, so everybody could choose their favorite. And with so many choices, not many people ended up on Red Delicious. Still, the mushy, monochromatic fruit is an icon — we're guessing it will be the "official" apple for decades to come.

Ever wonder how humans domesticated the apple? What about how apples domesticated the human? You might start wondering by the end of Michael Pollan's "Botany of Desire." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 22, 2018

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