Iowa, Birthplace of the Delicious Apple

Delicious apples

One cool spring morning, about 1880, Madison County farmer Jesse Hiatt was walking the rows of his young orchard when he noticed a chance seedling growing between the rows. Being an orderly man, he preferred that his trees grow in an organized fashion, and he chopped the seedling down. The seedling grew back the following year, and so he chopped it down again. When the seedling sprouted back up a third time, legend has it, Mr. Hiatt said to the tree, “If thee must grow, thee may.”

Birth of a Classic

Hiatt nurtured the tree for ten years. When it finally came to fruition, Hiatt was pleased with the red and yellow streaked appearance and the sweet, impressive flavor. He named it the “Hawkeye” after his adopted home state, and began to seek a nursery to propagate his discovery. He was turned down by eight or ten of them before his big break came.

He sent it to a contest in Louisiana, Missouri, that was seeking new varieties of fruit trees, especially apples. The Stark Bros. Fruit Company held the competition as part of their search for an apple tree to replace the then most popular tree, the Ben Davis. While it had a nice appearance, durability in shipping, and weather hardiness, the Ben Davis lacked flavor.

When Clarence Stark tasted the apple with the unusual oblong shape and the distinctive five bumps on the bottom, he pronounced it “Delicious!”

The Stark Bros Fruit Co. bought the rights to Hiatt’s discovery, and began taking cuttings from the original tree at Hiatt’s Winterset farm. Sixty years later, Stark had sold more than 10,000,000 trees worldwide that were all descendants of that original tree. They had renamed Hiatt’s Hawkeye after Clarence Stark’s original pronouncement, and the Delicious apple was on its way to complete domination of the apple industry.

Ice Blasts the Orchards

Back in Winterset, though, the original tree continued to flourish in a state that was second only to Michigan in apple production. In 1940, on Armistice Day (November 11th), a ferocious ice storm leveled Iowa’s orchards, a blast from which Iowa’s apple industry would never recover. With orchards being expensive to replant and war on the horizon, most orchards were turned into corn and soybean fields. Hiatt’s Hawkeye was split in two in the storm, and newspapers and radio commentators across the state lamented the demise of the historic tree.

As Hiatt had noted all those years ago, though, this little tree “must grow.” The following spring it sent up a new sprout right from the middle of the split, and it thrives to this day not far from those historic covered bridges in Madison County. A monument marks it, a fence and a private horticulturalist protect it, and a festival in nearby Donnelson honors it.

The Death of Delicious

Today, the fruit that bears the “Delicious” name has been hybridized out of all resemblance to that original Hawkeye. They are bred for shelf life and durability and crunch, but have lost their original flavor. The apple that once deserved the name “Delicious” is now a mute reminder of the hazards of industrialized standardization in food production.

Through the efforts of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and the Seed Saver’s Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, cuttings from the original tree have been propagated. At Wilson’s orchard in Iowa City, owner Chug Wilson’s nine-year-old Hawkeye trees are fruiting their second year, and he says this year they look like they will develop fully, ripen, and be ready to eat.

Although most grocery stores carry only a few varieties of apples (usually no more than three or four), there are actually thousands of varieties being grown worldwide. Here in Iowa, even five years after the Armistice Day freeze, apples were being grown on about 40 percent of the state’s farms. Today that number is less than 1 percent. Nationally, apple variety and apple growers are suffering from the effects of industrialization and the onslaught of huge amounts of product, especially juice, imported from China (now the world’s number one producer).

Add to this the fact that orchards are expensive to start and can take ten years to yield. Soon it is understandable why the small, sustainable Iowa farmer is not enthused about planting apple orchards. Iowa now produces less than 15 percent of the apples it consumes. The other 85 percent travels an average of 1500 miles and takes approximately 8 months to go from tree to table. Is this what the old Quaker farmer Jesse Hiatt had in mind when he sold the propagation rights 110 years ago? Unlikely. The rewards can be great, though, for those with the patience to pursue the delights of freshly picked apples.

Heirloom Apples Rediscovered

Local growers can choose from most of the thousands of varieties available. One organization, Slow Food, promotes the growing and consumption of heirloom varieties through its Ark of Taste program. Named for Noah’s Ark, the mission is to support high-quality, small-scale food production; to rediscover, catalogue, and describe foods and flavors in danger of disappearing from our tables; to protect biodiversity; and to champion the art of taste and the right to pleasure.

Recently, over 140 varieties of apples boarded the Ark. Slow Food, through its 110 local chapters nationwide, promotes the consumption of these apples and everything else on the Ark in order to protect them from extinction. They do this by holding taste education workshops, by connecting farmers to consumers, and by promoting them through the media.

If variety is indeed the spice of life, then America is beginning to lead one very bland existence. If we are what we eat, then most Americans are fast, cheap, and easy. Industrial standardization will eventually lead to there being only one flavor of apple, pear, corn, beef—you name it.

Globalization may indeed be the rule of the day, and many good things may come of it, but it is foolish to throw away the things our predecessors worked so hard for simply to set ourselves on a course to expedient mediocrity. We must protect the beauty and abundance with which we have been blessed by insuring that the need for profit does not trump the need to live full lives. Great food, raised with care, prepared well, and shared with the ones we love will help us to live that fuller life.

Jesse Hiatt may have scoffed at the notion of encouraging guaranteed sensual pleasure, but doubtless he would condemn the industrializing of food production as counter to all that honest farmers hold dear.

Apple-Pecan Stuffing

2 Granny Smith apples, diced
3/4 cup pecans, toasted
1 onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 loaf French bread, diced
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage
1 Tbsp. salt
1-1/4 Tbsp. cracked black pepper
1/4 cup butter
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Sauté the apples, pecans, onions, and celery until just tender. Add the sage, salt, and pepper. Add the bread and mix thoroughly. Add the stock, a little at a time, until it is absorbed and the stuffing reaches the desired consistency (all a matter of taste, really; you may need more or less stock).

Cool to use as an actual stuffing, or put in a shallow casserole and bake about 1/2 hour at 350° until crisp and crusty on top to serve as a side dish.

Chestnuts or hickory nuts make wonderful substitutes. All these nuts are available from Tom Wahl at the Southeast Iowa Nut Growers Co-op in Wapello. Contact Tom at Red Fern Farm, (319) 729-5905.