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A Surprising History Of The Apple (And Why Red Delicious Is Out)

Flickr Photo/Debbie R

American as apple pie, the expression goes.

Except that the only apple native to North America is the crab apple, said Rowan Jacobsen, author of “Apples of Uncommon Character.” He spoke with KUOW’s Marcie Sillman about apple history – and where you can find the most delicious varieties.

Apples find their roots in the forested Tian Shan mountains between Kazakhstan and China. Even today, Jacobsen said, 60 percent of those forests are made up of apple trees, with nut and apricot trees interspersed.

In the U.S., apples date back to the founding of the country.

“The apple and the colonist arrived together,” Jacobsen said. “The apple had been grown in Europe for a few thousand years by then. But we brought it over with us and immediately planted it.” Colonist and apple thrived equally.

The Red Delicious emerged as the favorite, beautifully red as its name boasts, but objectively not so delicious. The Red Delicious turned a generation off apples, Jacobsen said.

But apple growers have told him that for the first time this year, the Gala apple (which has a “much more tropical, citrusy flavor,” Jacobsen said) may edge out the Red Delicious as the world’s top apple.  

Jacobsen also gave a nod to the Honeycrisp, which he says revolutionized the apple industry. People don’t care how much they pay for that variety, he said.

“I think of it as an apple-flavored Cheeto,” he said. “You bite into it – it’s got these foamy cells that explode and shoot juice all over your mouth and then it’s gone.”

And then there are the varieties you can’t find in a supermarket – perhaps not so glossy or brightly colored, but surprising and delectable. Jacobsen’s favorite: Cox’s Orange Pippin, “considered the greatest-tasting apple of all time.”

The apple, which hails from 19th century England, isn’t pretty. Its skin is gnarled and brownish, but it has hard, crunchy texture.

There are also purple apples with a lychee flavor, and apples with banana notes.

“Don’t let color fool you,” he said.

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