I was chatting the other day with a friend about 'Honeycrisp' apples. How yummy they are, and how everyone in the apple growing, shipping and selling industry hates them. 'Honeycrisp' is a pain to grow, and doesn't ship or store very well. That is why they cost so much more at the grocery store than the less tasty, but easier to grow, apples next to them.
'Honeycrisp' apples are also interesting because they are a relatively new variety that is actually better tasting than older ones like the infamous 'Red Delicious.' When is the last time you ate a peach or pear or pepper or tomato from the grocery store and thought, "Wow! These are better than what I'm used to!" All the other produce in the store seems to get tougher, drier, blander and less worth eating with each passing year, while apples have actually gotten a little better. Why are apples the exception?
There is one simple reason: Apples are sold by variety. You never go buy "apples," you go buy 'Braeburn' or 'Pink Lady' or 'Gala.' With the actual names of the varieties in front of us, we, the consumers, get to pick the ones we like best. Growers of superior, but difficult, varieties like Honeycrisp can charge more for them to make it worth their while. But look next to the apple section, and you see a big bin labeled "Peaches." That's all. No variety name, just "Peaches." Same with the grapes, tomatoes, peppers, and virtually everything else in the store.
The effect of this lack of variety names was brought home to me a few years ago I got a chance to visit a university research farm where they were testing different varieties of peaches to see which would be best for local farmers to plant. As we tasted through some of the varieties, there was one we all loved called 'Ernie's Choice.' Whoever Ernie was, he knew how to choose, as it is a divine peach -- rich, tender, flavorful and incredibly juicy. Run-down-your-chin-and-ruin-your-clothes juicy. So how did this lovely peach do in the variety trials? Were they recommending 'Ernie's Choice' to all their growers? Quite the contrary -- it ranked as "unmarketable" because it is too tender, too juicey. It can't be harvested and shiped cheaply without damaging it. Anyone growing it would have to charge more for it and no grocery store buyer is going to pay more for them, because without a variety name they have no way to justify charging higher prices to their customers. Grocers are just buying peaches. The cheapest peaches available.
Without variety names attached to our produce, it is a race to the bottom. Whoever can breed and grow the toughest, cheapest, best storing variety wins. If we went to the store and found big bins of generic "apples" you can bet there would be no 'Honeycrisp' in that bin. It would be all 'Red Delicious' or something even worse but even easier to grow. Without variety names our apples would be like our tomatoes, peaches, and everything else at the store, and we, the consumers, would never have the chance to choose taste over price.
I hope that will change -- with the rise of home gardening and farmers markets, I think more and more people are realizing that fruits and vegetables are not just generic commodities, but come in distinct varieties. Hopefully grocery stores will realize it as well, and start telling us what we are actually buying. Maybe we'll even get the chance to buy 'Ernie's Choice' peaches someday.
Addendum: Do check out the comments where WmJas links to the meaning of "Red" in Turkish... Suddenly the name 'Red Delicious' makes so much sense.