THEY ARE BOTH mostly sweet, conical in shape, late-season apples. Their names are identical except for their predominant coloring.
They began as chance seedlings, and are now among the most widely grown apples in the world. But make no mistake, these two apple giants — Golden Delicious and Red Delicious — are not related.
The similar names of these two varieties are the brainchild of one man, marketing genius C. M. Stark of Stark Brothers Nursery in Missouri. At a time when apples were still given prosaic names like Cortland (released commercially in 1915) and Macoun (1923) that identify the variety with a person or place, Stark’s choice of “delicious” said something about the eating experience.
Red Delicious came first, released commercially in 1895. It had been discovered 20 years earlier on a farm in Iowa, and originally was known as Hawkeye.
Red Delicious is beautiful to behold, especially en masse in the orchard. Its rich red color is as close as there is to a monochromatic apple — even Golden Delicious and Granny Smith often have a pink blush.
Its texture is firm and crisp, another reason for its wide distribution. It travels well and stores well.
For decades Red Delicious could be found almost everywhere around the globe. In the late 1990s, in the poorest section of Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti — the poorest nation in the western hemisphere — I was startled by a pyramid of Red Delicious rising amid makeshift huts of cardboard and corrugated tin.
The problem with Red Delicious for many people is its very predictability. Its unalloyed sweetness can seem bland compared to newer sweet apples like Gala, with its hints of pear. Red Delicious’s dense texture cannot match Honeycrisp’s large size or explosive crispness.
Even Red Delicious’s famous coloring pales in comparison to Gala’s gradual progression from yellow to orange to red.
Yet Red Delicious remains the quintessential sweet apple for some, mostly eaten fresh, but also baked or cooked. The best Red Delicious are those grown locally in New England, a little smaller, juicier, and obviously fresher than those developed to withstand the rigors of long-distance travel. Eastern Red Delicious even come with occasional peach-yellow highlights.
Golden Delicious, like Red Delicious, was known by a different name — Mullins Yellow Seedling — for about 25 years from the time of its discovery in West Virginia in 1890 to its commercial release by Stark Brothers in 1916.
Golden Delicious is a large, sweet apple like its red counterpart, but with a touch of tartness, especially when first picked (like many apples, Golden Delicious mellows over time). Predominantly yellow or gold with a pink blush, its coloring offers greater nuance than Red Delicious.
While it is best known for fresh eating, Golden Delicious is an outstanding baking apple, especially in pies, where it holds its shape.
DESPITE the marketing success of the two Delicious apples, the practice of giving apple varieties non-descriptive names has largely prevailed since Stark’s time. Mid-century apples Mutsu (from Japan in 1948; rechristened Crispin in England in 1968) and Braeburn (1952), and a trio of apples from the 1960s, Fuji (1962), Empire (1966), Jonagold (1968), are good examples.
While those names fail to describe the fruit, they at least connect the apple to some aspect of its heritage. Three patriotic-sounding varieties developed for disease resistance — Freedom (1983), Liberty (1978), and Enterprise (1990) — say nothing about an apple. Newer, trademarked varieties like Jazz (2000) and Envy (2012) have meaningless names that could apply to any product.
The name Honeycrisp (1991), in contrast, announces it as a sweet, crispy apple. RubyMac (1999) and CrimsonCrisp (2005) describe the fruit’s distinctive hue and texture.
But these are the exceptions. For the most part, an apple’s flavor and texture has to speak for itself.