Belgian endive, the butt of jokes in the presidential campaign, is gaining respectability in Massachusetts, where researchers are developing new varieties and promoters call it the "white gold" of vegetables.
More than 150 chefs and restaurant owners gathered recently for a sumptuous repast of Belgian endive with caviar, chilled cream of endive soup and braised endive with veal.
Toast of the Party
Although he did not attend, the toast of the $15,000 party thrown by Belgian produce shippers was Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who appears to have nearly as devoted a following among endive sellers as among Greek-Americans.
"He's certainly done a lot for us in publicity," said Franz Dahlem, director of the Belgian Endive Marketing Board and host of the leafy fete.
When Dukakis suggested during the Iowa primary campaign that hard-pressed corn and soybean farmers try growing the fancy produce, it was a debacle for his presidential candidacy.
"His farm policy is the Belgian endive," Dan Quayle later told a crowd in Des Moines, "and his defense policy is the Belgian waffle."
Dukakis may have bristled, but the Belgians were grateful.
Has a Tangy Flavor
"It's like we say, it doesn't matter whether people tell good things about you, just that they tell about you," Dahlem said in his heavy Flemish accent.
Indeed, these are salad days for Belgian endive, a relative of chicory with blanched leaves, a lettuce-like texture and a tangy flavor.
Thanks both to Dukakis and the growing popularity of exotic produce in general, U.S. sales shot up from 300 tons of endive in 1981 to 3,000 tons last year, according to the marketing board.
At an average supermarket price of $2 to $3 a pound, Belgian endive sales total about $15 million a year. But Americans are still micro-consumers of the vegetable, eating less than one ounce a person per year, while Belgians eat about 20 pounds each.
Belgians are also the dominant growers, producing about 80% of the world's crop. But scientists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst are hoping to change that.
Their research, which began three years ago and has received $170,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is aimed at developing new varieties and hydroponic, or water-based, growing techniques. It could turn a corner next year, when farmers will plant experimental batches.
The Chinese may not be far behind. Prof. Kenneth A. Corey, who is supervising the research, has two postdoctoral students from China who are interested in taking the crop to their homeland.
Chefs love Belgian endive because it does not fall apart in cooking. Farmers can charge top dollar for it because it is grown by a labor-intensive process in which the white roots are harvested and placed in pitch-dark rooms to force the growth of the tender leaves.