Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone
By Marg Land
I had just settled comfortably into my office chair to wax poetic about the Red Delicious apple when disaster struck – someone beat me to it.
Prompted by a very humorous feature by Tove Danovich in The New Food Economy, I was going to give in to temptation and contribute my two cents worth of support to what she considers an almost universally held belief – “Red Delicious is an apple atrocity” and “a crime against apples.”
My fingers were hovering over the keyboard, ready to strike a blow against the tyranny of the most un-delicious Delicious, when a new email hit my inbox. Tom Karst, national editor of The Packer, had already weighed into the apple controversy. And he was pro-Red.
Oh, Tom! The horror!
Alas, you can only beat the dry, mealy, tough-skinned, blah-tasting topic known as the Red Delicious for so long before it’s basically apple sauce. I needed to move on.
And yet, it’s hard not to fantasize about the end of Big Red, a variety Danovich describes as being similar to a Styrofoam prop: “it looks picturesque but really has no business in the mouth.” It wouldn’t be the first apple variety to drift away into the mist of time, joining the ranks of Hog Snout and Montreal Peach. Where exactly do apple varieties go to die?
According to the “apple detective,” they aren’t really dead. They’re just lurking around the edges of a woodlot or growing along an old fencerow, waiting to be discovered. Or, rather, rediscovered.
David Benscoter is a retired agent with the FBI and IRS Criminal Division who now hunts through dusty records in search of old Washington state homesteads that may still be home to a few rogue heirloom apple varieties. And he’s pretty good at his hobby. According to a recent article from the Spokesman-Review, Benscoter has rediscovered five apple varieties in Washington and Idaho that were thought to be extinct – the Shackleford, McAfee, Saxon Priest, Kittageskee and the Ewalt.
To date, Benscoter has rediscovered more than 20 varieties of apples that were once considered “lost.”
During his investigations, Benscoter receives assistance from local property owners to hunt down wild-growing apples. He then sends the fruit or cuttings off to the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Oregon, where they are compared to written variety descriptions and more than 7,000 old paintings collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 1886.
Washington State University’s horticultural genomics lab has also become involved, propagating some of the “lost” varieties. Associate scientist Amit Dhingra recognized the hardy field-tested trees – which have many natural qualities, such as disease resistance and drought tolerance – could be useful to produce new apple varieties.
“It is estimated that of the 17,000 named apple varieties originating in North America, only around 4,000 still exist today,” Benscoter stated in a press release.
Oh, to dream that some day the Red Delicious might go the way of the Bachelor Blush and Rough and Ready, lost to the heavy underbrush of time. And may it please remain that way, just a pasty, bitter aftertaste on the tongue of memory.