It’s sacrilege to think of the Red Delicious as an heirloom, but in fact it has a humble and impeccable pedigree. The original Red Delicious tree was a stubborn seedling that sprouted in Jesse Hiatt’s field in Madison County, Iowa, in 1872. Over time, the branches chosen for grafting were selected for shape, color, and durability, and the modern flavor rarely lives up to its name. Strains of the original, sometimes called Hawkeye Delicious, can still be found and tasted.
Heirloom trees and well-bred modern apples all trace back to seedlings that someone loved enough to keep and pass along. Zeke Goodband, orchardist at Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont, told NPR recently that eating and growing heirloom apples is “sort of like a chain letter” through history. Letter writing and apple eating are both among the most democratic of arts, and thankfully not yet lost.
Susan Futrell is writing a book about apples for the University of Iowa Press.