27 October 2010

Why grocery store apples are better than peaches

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.


Diana said...

Up here we have a large number of "Farm stands" that sell produce. The stuff for sale isn't always grown here (there's a limit to what can be grown, and when, here in the neoarctic New England). Often it's organic. But they frequently do label the varieties of fruits and veggies. So you don't get "peaches" or "carrots" you get the variety name as well.

I'm with you, I'd like to know variety names in the grocery store so I can pay more for the really good stuff and not bother with the stone hard, bland tasting fruits.

Sounds like it's time to organize a Foodie Revolution! I nominate you as Commander-General-Fruit. I'll take the title of Chief-Food-Taster. Yum!

Travis said...

I completely agree!! I want the same thing...and as for Ernie's choice...I don't think I could ever find a better tasting peach!! Still sad I haven't found them since the one time I've tried them!!! (good thing I ate like 4 of them!) Oh...and you mean 'Red (not so) Delicious' apples :-)

Liz said...

I read the first part of your blog on honey crisp apples, and thought, why do they sell apples by variety but not anything else? Oh...that was what the post was about.
I hate that they just sell "peaches." I never know what I'm going to end up with.

Anonymous said...

The name "Red Delicious" makes a lot more sense if you speak Turkish.

Joseph said...

Hey! I wanted to be the food taster!
Yeah, I hope selling by variety migrates from the farm stands to the grocery store!

Wm, Ha ha! I'm totally adding that link to the post.

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

Finally! A gardening post that I can share with my non-gardening family.
They are going to devour the section about apples.

Carlie said...

Ernie's Choice. Am making mad notes to self about that name. Mmmm...I love peaches.

Such a brilliant insight. Love the thought.

Commonweeder said...

I had never thought about why apples are sold by variety but not other fruits. Now I am especially glad that we have orchards near us and can buy peaches and pears by variety as well as apples.

Mary C. said...

hehehehe, now I have an excuse to annoy the produce guys... 'excuse me, what variety of peach are these?'

Brenda from Flatbush said...

Brilliant analysis...so glad this is important to someone besides me!!! My own pet peeve is GRAPES...especially those dreary "Chilean table grapes"...after tasting seasonal Mars, Seneca and others at our local greenmarket, I now virtually eat grapes ONLY in season, pay a fortune for them and enjoy every one by name!

Diana Studer said...

Living in South Africa, shopping at Woolworths, I expect peaches - tomatoes- grapes - to announce their variety with pride. We pay more, but we get something we, as vegetarians, want to eat! Another Diana, at EE

ryan said...

In my area we get some labeling on our peaches, and as a result I'm able to find delicious peaches, though usually only towards the end of the season when we get the 'mountain grown' varieties with red flesh.

I worked for a season in an apple orchard and it was interesting to go through the different varieties that the orchard grew in order to get a long harvest that would keep the operation going from early to mid-season to late varieties. I got a lot of respect for the different qualities of an apple, and also how there is room for a lot of different of ones in an orchard. Red Delicious turned out to be a parent of some of my favorite varieties and also turned out to produce a pretty decent apple fresh off the tree when those varieties had reverted.