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Wacky Produce : Vegetarian Solution

<i> Gasbarro is a free-lance writer who lives in Maryland. This story originally appeared in the Washington Post</i>

If Mother Nature had wanted watermelons to be yellow, they would be. The same goes for round carrots and white tomatoes.

But no. Geneticists had to fool around with perfectly good fruits and vegetables, changing their shapes and colors. The result is a cornucopia of weird cultivars that can be disquieting on the dinner plate and make you wonder where on Earth it will all end.

J. W. Jung Seed Co. (“growing since 1907") of Randolph, Wis., and the Park Seed Co. of Greenwood, S.C., annually offer through their mail-order catalogues agriculture’s more unusual possibilities--things you seldom see at the corner grocery store.

If you have ever planted carrots in clay soil, you know the result is something that looks like the tenth letter of the alphabet. Round carrots, christened Kundulus, actually have a place on God’s little acre mbecause they were developed for garden boxes or for growing in heavy clay soil. The carrots do not have to descend into the ground more than an inch or two, instead of the usual nine. (The word off the farm is that the radish-sized carrots are impossible to peel, however.)

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For people who want (heaven knows why) their beets to look like carrots, Jung will be introducing the elusive Cylindra, the beet shaped like a carrot.

As far as tomatoes go: Red is the norm. Yellow is popular. Green is perfect for pickling. But white?

The flesh and skin of the White Wonder Tomato assumes an eerie creamy greenish-white color. It’s the kind of entity your Aunt Sophia would proclaim was a sign from Satan and call on Father Dominic to exorcise. Actually, it was developed for people who cannot eat red tomatoes because of their high acid content. White tomatoes are low in acid.

“The white tomato happened purely by accident,” says Dick Zondag, marketing director for Jung. “It was a mutation that was found on our seed field that we propagated.”

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Despite this love apple’s gentleness on the stomach, Zondag says the decolorized fruit is not for tomato connoisseurs. “It’s not very flavorful,” he warns.

Believe it or not, the strange goods that entwine the pages of these catalogues are steady sellers--otherwise they would be pruned back. But Jung’s Zondag can think back on a botanical bomb or two.

Loofah sponges, for example, are an inedible relative of the cucumber. While their brief popularity was tied to an alleged ability to rearrange the cellulite in one’s thighs, people did not want to grow them in their back yards. “They were a complete failure,” Zondag laments. Too much, perhaps, like the pods in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”?

Those in the gardening field, however, say that America is clamoring for odd fruits, unusual vegetables. Anything that was not repeatedly served to Beaver Cleaver.

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“The trend is eating healthy, and that can get boring after a while,” says Beth Chase of United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn. of Alexandria, Va. “So there’s a huge demand for novel vegetables and fruits. They are selling quite well.”

An example to which she peachily points is the broccoflower, a hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower. At first glance, the light-greenish broccoflower looks like an unripened, marked-down-for-quick-sale brain stem. Now, Chase says, “Stores can’t keep them in stock.”

Be it a paella ingredient or laboratory mutation, anything new takes people a while to integrate into their day-to-day lives.

“It takes about 18 to 20 years for a new fruit or vegetable to graduate from its unusual status to a common everyday entity,” says Karen Caplan, president of Frieda’s Finest, a California concern that distributes 300 exotic types of produce. Caplan’s mother is Frieda, who was instrumental in introducing the now omnipresent kiwi to the American grocery list.

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“We may be eating 1,000 to 2,000 different items each year, but there are 10,000 more items worldwide that have not yet arrived in our supermarkets,” says Caplan.

No. 1 on Frieda’s Finest Hit Parade (and moving into the mainstream) is jicama, a low-calorie tuber that you peel, slice and eat. Also in demand is the horned melon with its spiky skin and an emerald-green pulp that tastes like bananas, limes and cucumbers.

Don’t forget the cherimoya with its green skin, white flesh and black seeds. Its flavor is like papayas, strawberries and pineapples all mixed together.

Like the round carrot, some agricultural cultivars have a profound usefulness. The seedless watermelon, for example, is a dream come true for millions of back-yard dwellers. No more melon babies growing in the lawn. But an absence of the .32-caliber seeds--which, with practice, you once could spit-shoot at your baby sister’s forehead from across the picnic table--makes this melon not only seedless but also funless.

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A neighbor who used to show much bravado in the grocery aisles--she was the first on the block to buy cactus and daikon--once brought into her home a yellow watermelon. Her family, she says, was less than charmed: “My 3-year-old, who was just starting to ask for foods by name and identify them on the plate, was horrified that the melon was yellow, not pink. She screamed and carried on like I had put poison in front of her.”

To the person whose bright idea it was to make a yellow watermelon: You made at least one child cry.


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