The 1909 National Apple Show in Spokane featured competitions, band concerts, vaudeville shows, and 1,525,831 apples. Spokane schools closed for a day so all the students could visit the exhibition, which spread across three and a half acres and featured intricate displays such as a giant American flag composed of apples and boxcars full of neatly packed apples.
Growers, shippers, bankers, and hundreds of the merely curious from around the Northwest flocked to the exhibition to revel in the fruit that Washington grew so well. When everyone had had their fill of the spectacle, the whole show was packed onto a special train and shipped off to Chicago.
A little more than a decade later, the epicenter of Washington’s fruit industry had shifted to Yakima and Wenatchee. Although the first commercial orchard in Wenatchee was established in 1884, it took a while for growers in the rest of the state to accept that there was no better place in the world to grow apples.
Irrigation helped that movement, of course. Work on the Sunnyside Canal began in the Yakima Valley in 1885. In Wenatchee, the Gunn Ditch project began in 1896 and the Highline project in 1902.
By the 1920s Washington surpassed New York as the leading apple-producing state. According to Amanda Van Lanen ’04, in her fine dissertation on the early history of Washington’s apple (“We Have Grown Fine Fruit Whether We Would or No”), the industry’s success was due to an unprecedented combined effort of railroads, real estate boosters, agricultural colleges, and growers.
But as Van Lanen explains, that growth required a tightened focus and a resulting reduction in diversity. From the dozens of varieties represented at the National Apple Show, by the 1930s standardization of management, packing, and shipping had reduced the apple diversity of the state to four key varieties.
On the surface, this seems a classic case of cooperative capitalism leading not only to high quality and consistency, but also to a bland standardization. But like many generalizations, it’s kind of true, but also not.
The Washington apple industry, albeit not single-handedly, has provided the world with high-quality apples all year round. And such a feat requires a tradeoff. Fortunately, that tradeoff is not all that egregious. Since the available varieties reached such a low point in the 1930s, the varieties available now have bounced back nicely.
Although the dominance of the Red Delicious did indeed for a while undermine our gustatory enjoyment, the market, fed by foreign competition and creative breeding, has created new varieties and new tastes.
Better yet, a yearning for more diverse tastes has led to a rebounding availability of older varieties, mostly available locally. Grimes Golden, for example, which has a far more complex flavor than its offspring the Golden Delicious, but tends to crop irregularly, is now increasingly available from small growers not dependent on an international market.
There is something wonderful about creating flavor and taste, a task enjoyed by our apple breeder Kate Evans and her crew. Allow me to conflate music and gastronomy through the older concept of “gusto.” Perhaps her latest as-yet-unnamed creations have not yet achieved the gusto of Beethoven’s last quartets. Even so, as Bill Morelock observes in his essay on how “taste” is transcended by Beethoven, “… I believe we should resolve to be proud.”
Tim Steury, Editor