Brave New Veggies?

By Jeffrey KlugerMar 1, 1993 6:00 AM


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William Waycott has a really tiny head. Oh, he started off with an ordinary, regulation-size head, mind you. But with hard work and a lot of perseverance, he managed to shrink it down to a quarter of its original size. If Waycott has his way, we’ll all have tiny heads soon, too.

Happily for Waycott--as well as his hatmaker--the diminutive dome in question is not his original, flesh-and-blood head. Rather, it’s a head of ordinary iceberg lettuce. Or not so ordinary. As anyone who’s had even a nodding acquaintance with iceberg heads can tell you, lettuce stored too long in the refrigerator has a tendency to go limp, curl up, turn brown, and in extreme cases, begin self-locomoting and producing young. The problem, of course, is that the average head of lettuce is just too darned big to eat at once.

For you and me, the solution would be obvious: either resign ourselves to scarfing down a near-toxic level of salad all in one sitting, or make it a point to clean out the refrigerator before any lettuce we do store begins migrating out and colonizing adjacent landmasses. However, for Waycott--a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Salinas, California--there was another option. Using a complicated combination of gene-mutating chemicals and painstaking crossbreeding, he managed to create a line of dwarf iceberg heads no bigger than the average softball. If all goes well, he hopes to have his microlettuce available in mini-marts and sous-chef salads by spring.

Waycott isn’t the only person out there monkeying around with nature’s vegetable bin. Since the time the first marketing whiz awoke in the middle of the night with the word Niblets on his lips, farmers, manufacturers, and geneticists have been working hard to go the garden- variety garden one better. It was in the nineteenth century that the first combination chef and welder came up with the lip-smacking idea of slicing string beans, carrots, and other veggies down to tiny morsels, boiling them to within an inch of their molecular integrity, sealing them in waterproof, leakproof, blastproof cans, and storing them on supermarket shelves to be opened any time between now and the end of the next geologic epoch. Not satisfied with that advance, food technologists in 1929--evidently taking a disastrous turn on the way to developing Baskin-Robbins’s thirty-second flavor--came up with the concept of freezing vegetables. The thinking behind the innovation was, apparently, that if kids are already reluctant to eat brussels sprouts, asparagus, and other questionable flora, what better mealtime strategy than to flash-freeze the offending foodstuffs into phlegm green blocks, wrap them in wax packaging, and stockpile them in a vapor-belching Deepfreeze from which they can be withdrawn before dinner like a preserved brain being readied for transplant? That oughta bring ’em to the table!

Happily for the food industry, however--and sadly for the children of tomorrow--the fruit-and-vegetable brainstorms have not stopped there. Across the country, an army of scientists and breeders have been diving deeper and deeper into the flora gene pool and surfacing with curiouser and curiouser stuff. For a nation still trying to come to grips with succotash, creamed corn, and the cling peach in heavy syrup, the pursuit of produce promises to get more confusing still.

The little lettuce Waycott designed is one of the most striking examples of the brave new world of veggies. To perform his head-shrinking trick, Waycott, working with plant geneticist Edward Ryder, first basted ungerminated lettuce seeds in a tempting marinade of ethyl methanesulfonate. EMS is a mutagen, which is a polite way of saying that it can scramble the genes of living organisms. Mutagens are the kinds of things that Senate subcommittees hold urgent hearings about every year or two, when sharp-eyed parents living near toxic waste sites or chemical factories begin to notice that their children are developing antlers. While most mutagens act unpredictably, EMS is known to have a particular effect on genes that control growth. After allowing the lettuce seeds to soak in the EMS soup for 24 hours, Waycott planted them and, as he predicted, got himself a whole harvest of lilliputian lettuce plants. Waycott and Ryder then crossed regular iceberg lettuce with this new breed of ice cubes and produced a lettuce line that was permanently dwarfed.

The new plants taste just like the real thing and look just like the real thing, Waycott says. We’ve released the seeds to a number of garden companies, and we think they’ll have an appeal for anyone who eats salad only occasionally, or who lives alone and can’t finish an entire head. And as for the possible danger of eating a head of lettuce whose great-great-grandplant was soaked in a mutagenic bath? I’ve eaten plenty of this lettuce and I’m perfectly all right, says Ryder, now 11 inches tall and living in a handsomely furnished hatbox. The effect of the EMS does not last beyond the first generation.

Even if Ryder is right, many plant geneticists would just as soon hold the mutagens and produce new produce using selective breeding alone. For most of us, of course, just how plants manage to reproduce is a little unclear, largely because public schools typically teach the topic in the seventh or eighth grade--or about the time the average adolescent is secreting more hormones than the average musk-ox and has other things to consider than how a wax bean gets lucky on Saturday night. As any good vegetable voyeur would tell you, however, plant passion can be a downright sizzling experience.

In nature, says plant geneticist Jack Hearn of the United States Horticultural Research Laboratory in Orlando, Florida, plants begin the reproductive process when the stamen--or male part of the flower-- produces pollen, which comes in contact with the pistil--or female part. Genetic material is then joined and a fertilized seed results.

Generally that genetic material will come from parents of the same species. Occasionally, however, the Montagues of one species will take up with the Capulets of another and a chromosomal crapshoot will result. Often the results can be surprisingly good: it was a cross between the tangerine and the grapefruit that yielded the tangelo, a union of broccoli and cauliflower that produced the delicately flavored broccoflower.

Inspired by such chance amour, Hearn and his peers have spent years trying to create shotgun vegetable weddings of their own, hoping to improve on the gene-mingling skills of nature itself. The latest fruit of Hearn’s labors is the temptingly named Ambersweet, a new citrus plant that carries the genes of not two plants but three.

I used a hybrid plant that was three-quarters tangerine and one- quarter grapefruit as the female parent, Hearn says. And I used a sweet orange variety as the male. Harvesting pollen from the orange’s stamen, he carried it to the tangelo’s pistil and fertilized the blushing bride. To prevent the tangelo from spoiling the experiment by subsequently fertilizing itself (something most young plants do--it’s really nothing to be ashamed of), Hearn removed the tangelo’s stamen, yielding a plant that was exclusively female and a lot less fun at parties.

The fruit ultimately produced by this still-fertile but understandably neurotic plant bears many of the traits of all its proud parents. It has the loose skin and the early-season ripening of the tangerine, the dark orange pulp of the orange, and the size of the grapefruit. The Ambersweet itself is already on the market, and the FDA recently approved the use of Ambersweet juice in processed orange drinks-- an application that could provide a huge market for Ambersweet growers. (While the approval was welcome, some produce-watchers question whether the government should have the final word in these matters. This, after all, is the same body that once called ketchup a vegetable yet failed to apply the same designation to most of the members of the 102nd Congress.)

Also popular with the government is the newly developed and splendidly named plumcot. Like a handful of words in the English language-- ointment, squeegee, bumptious, and goober among them--plumcot is almost too much fun to say. However, it’s not the new fruit’s name that’s earned it praise but the taste. As the compound syllables suggest, the plumcot is a cross between the plum and the apricot. Most people’s only experience with apricots involves those baskets of Naugahyde-flavored dried fruit people give you when you’re in the hospital that you never open but just pass on to the next person you know who’s sick, who then passes it on to the next. One fruit basket currently making the rounds in my family is said to have started out as a get-well gift to Ponce de León. Fresh apricots, though, are actually pretty tasty. Part of the genus Prunus (which is either a category of fruit or something overgrown hedges would say if they could talk), apricots are next of kin to peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries, and other fruit with pits.

In Fresno, California, USDA plant geneticist Craig Ledbetter had been noticing for years that plums and apricots, left to their own wanton ways, tended to pollinate one another with something approaching abandon. Determined to bring these vegetable love children to the public, he began deliberately cross-pollinating the fruit in government orchards. After five years of careful crossings, he believes he has a product that may soon be ready for market.

Plumcots are pretty delicious, Ledbetter says. They have the sweetness of the apricot and the tartness of the plum, but not too much of either.

Also under development by the government’s vegetable tinkerers is the soon-to-be-perfect orange tomato, which--with the help of a crack marketing team, sophisticated focus groups, and a committee of high-priced advertising consultants--they’ve named the Orange Tomato. The orange tomato, brought to fruition by USDA plant geneticist John Stommel in Beltsville, Maryland, gets its color and name from the extra dose of beta carotene--or provitamin A--it carries in its pulp and skin. Stommel created the orange tomato by crossing a high-beta carotene wild tomato found only on the Galápagos Islands with a beefsteak tomato found in any supermarket on less-exotic islands like Staten, Rhode, or Long. The two plant species took readily to each other, bearing an orange fruit that tastes like any tomato you’ve ever eaten on any BLT.

Not all plant geneticists are as adventurous as Stommel. Rather than crossing two or three different species of fruits and vegetables, they work with just one species at a time, breeding within it to select a single desirable trait. This kind of conservative midwifery is currently being conducted at the famed W. Atlee Burpee & Company in suburban Philadelphia. Although known principally for its seeds and garden supplies, Burpee is also a four-time winner of the coveted Silliest Name for a Business or Person Award, regularly edging out such notables as Cincinnati Reds pitcher Tim Belcher, CNN correspondent Bill Tush, former Indiana Jones star Alison Doody, and onetime New York Giants infielder Boner Merkle. Lending the same talent for nomenclature to its products as to itself, Burpee recently developed the Roly Poly Zucchini, a vegetable that trades the summer squash’s traditional banana shape for a more spherical one.

People like to scoop out zucchini and stuff it with rice or other fillings, says horticulturist Lee Strassburger, a merchandise director and Burpee’s spokesman--or burpsman. With the Roly Poly you can do this more easily.

The Roly Poly was created over three growing seasons by selecting zucchini that were unusually rounded to begin with and repeatedly breeding them, causing each successive generation to become more spherical than the one before it. This selective process is a painstaking one, but it is akin to the technique by which nature provided the elephant with its trunk, the giraffe with its neck, and various members of the British royal family with ears sufficient to generate aerodynamic lift.

With such genetic curiosities already to nature’s credit, some researchers looking for cutting-edge fruits and veggies have quit mucking around with breeding altogether and begun to keep their eyes open for what’s already out there. For example, topping evolution’s list of fun- fruits-yet-to-go-mainstream is the little-known rambutan. Found principally in the Malay peninsula and Thailand, the rambutan is a distant relative-- evidently by marriage--of the common lichee. The fruit is about two and a half inches long, contains a hard, peachlike pit, and has whitish, translucent flesh covered by a yellow or red skin. What distinguishes the rambutan from more pedestrian produce is that its skin is also covered with sharp, inch-long spines.

Despite such poor packaging--Hawaii-based plant breeder Francis Zee describes the rambutan as looking a little like a bright red sea urchin--the fruit may have a rosy future with American consumers. Rambutans are sweet and juicy and have a crunchy feel to them, says Zee. The spines look strange, but all you have to do is twist the skin and it opens right up. Reportedly this fruit has been popular in Hawaii for years, but the same can be said about Don Ho and Jack Lord, so what does that prove?

Even with fruits like the rambutan already overflowing nature’s cornucopia, however, the mingling and mangling of plant genes will probably proceed apace. Already USDA researchers in Texas are boasting of a new breed of rice with the taste and aroma of popcorn. Working with a variety of rice that had a popcorn scent to begin with, the geneticists bred and rebred its descendants, intensifying the trait until a pot of the stuff aboiling could give the average kitchen the aroma of the average movie theater. Consumers apparently love the stuff, but I’m going to wait for the more tempting Milk Dud-flavored strains.

More disturbing is work at the USDA’s Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where researchers are developing--I’m not kidding--an edible alga. Like rice, algae do not technically qualify as vegetable but rather what scientists refer to as goop. The new taste sensation is not intended to be used as a source of nutrition but as a research tool, to be tagged with carbon-isotope markers and fed to children to track how they process certain nutrients. Nevertheless, just this species of algae--without the carbon garnish--is already popular among discriminating diners in Chad, Mexico, and some American health food emporiums. If scientists are now teaching children to tolerate it, it’s only a matter of time before they start feeding it--along with all the other new-age foodstuffs--to the rest of us.

For my tastes, however, you can keep the whole harvest. As someone whose early vegetable experiences never got more exotic than the salad bar at Sizzler, I prefer my tomatoes red, my oranges orange, my lettuce big, my algae in my fish tank, and my rambutans in Hawaii. And if that makes me corny, well that’s just peachy.

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