At the Oak Park Farmers’ Market, it seems like everyone wants Honeycrisp. It’s a rare Saturday that I don’t hear someone asking for them, raving about them, or walking away downcast when the vendor confesses that, alas, “We’re all out.”

The name “Honeycrisp” is marketing genius: it states key benefits precisely. If you ask most people what they’re looking for in an apple, they’ll say sweet (but “not too sweet,” naturally sweet, like, you know, honey) and crisp (no one wants a mushy apple or mushy fruit of any kind). A similar effort to highlight the key benefit(s) in the name was attempted, of course, by “Delicious” apples, but in this case the taste and texture of the fruit were so much at odds with the actual name that this moniker seemed ironic at best and at worst a cruel joke: the Delicious apple is pretty, I guess, but it doesn’t deliver on the name. If some rose raiser hadn’t already registered the moniker, the Delicious apple might have been more appropriately named American Beauty; like so many Miss America contestants, it’s conventionally attractive though painfully vacant.

Honeycrisp delivers. For that, we can thank men and women in lab coats; it’s these hardworking taste technicians who also developed the SweeTango and Zestar. The University of Minnesota is doing for apples in the twenty-first century what land baron John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman did for apples in the eighteenth century….with the exception that Honeycrisp, SweeTango and Zestar are all registered names, and you need a licensed orchard to grow them. None of these varieties are the result of random seeds broadcast by a barefoot carefree character sporting a saucepan hat.

Last week, I got a call from a PR agency working for SweeTango. They sent me two of their apples, carefully cushioned in a two-fruit mailing container. “Must be expensive,” I thought, but actually all three of these apple types are approximately the same market price.

Carolyn had bought some Zestar apples the week before, so we decided to do a side-by-side blind tasting to see which one of the three U of M varieties we liked best. Here are our notes on the ones we tasted, all available at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market (and I’m guessing many markets everywhere in the U.S.). 

  • Honeycrisp: probably, as advertised, the most crisp and sweetest of the bunch, very juicy. Though somewhat one-dimensional, this is still a good apple, and it’s no wonder it’s so popular. This apple did not exist before 2006, and it is quite a success story, having gained what seems to be market dominance in something like 6-7 years after product introduction. The nice lady at Ellis Farms at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market said to us, sotto voce, that she wasn’t a big fan of Honeycrisp, though she sold a lot of them: “too watery,” she explained. 
  • SweetTango: juicy and with more mouth-puckering acidity than the Honeycrisp, but without more actual flavor. Taste was flatter, less interesting, but not at all bad. SweeTango is a hybrid of Honeycrisp and Zestar, and in the side-by-side tasting, this fruit’s lineage is very clear. A good apple, but not quite the equal of its parentage. 
  • Zestar: our favorite, not as crisp nor as sweet as either of the other two, but with good juice, and better balance of sweetness and acidity. Beautiful white color, this apple looks great on a cheeseboard and it blends beautifully with all kinds of cheese (we liked it with Roquefort as well as cheddar). YMMV & FWIW, the Zestar we had for breakfast this morning was was dull and lifeless, without sweetness or distinct astringency; perhaps the U of M technicians are still working on a consistent taste for this apple.

Though Zestar was our favorite on two out of three tasting, this is not to say that we wouldn’t buy or eat either of the other two. There are a lot of apples out there.

One thing I kind of miss with all of these highly calculated fruits is the sense of romance and heritage one gets from biting into, say, a Northern Spy, celebrated by Edgar Lee Masters in “Conrad Siever.”

NOT in that wasted   garden

 

Where bodies are drawn into grass

 

That feeds no flocks, and into evergreens

 

That bear no fruit—

 

There where along the shaded walks

      

Vain sighs are heard,

 

And vainer dreams are dreamed

 

Of close communion with departed souls—

 

But here under the apple tree

 

I loved and watched and pruned

  

With gnarled hands

 

In the long, long years;

 

Here under the roots of this northern-spy

 

To move in the chemic change and circle of life,

 

Into the soil and into the flesh of the tree,

 

And into the living epitaphs

 

Of redder apples!

 

It’s kind of funny that the speaker, interred beneath his beloved apple trees, hopes to engender, through his fertilizing corpse, “redder apples,” as there are few apples redder than the unsatisfying Delicious.  Anyway, I kind of doubt anyone is going to write existential life/death meditations upon the self-consciously engineered Honeycrisp, SweeTango or even Zestar, but they’re all worthy, though we generally prefer the Zestar, which like the other two was the result of “long, long years” of labor, not by gnarled hands, but by market-sensitive agricultural scientists: better living through chemic.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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