Engineering a Vegetable Garden of Unearthly Delights

Look, I'm no Luddite.

I have a home computer, which I use every day. I have a telephone answering machine and, at least twice a week, I remember to turn it on. I have two compact disc players--one at home and one in the car--and I use them both.

Once, I even programmed my VCR to record something while I was out. It did record something, but not what I'd planned. I watched it anyway, which I regard as a sign of my forward-looking flexibility.

Still, there is something that makes me uneasy about this week's announcement that the federal government will allow genetically engineered fruits and vegetables to be sold to the public without any extraordinary review.

I'm not one of those people who thinks that eating vegetables grown with chemical fertilizers will make you grow a third ear. I respect the accomplishments of 20th-Century American agribusiness, which has--it must be admitted--made us the best-fed people at the lowest price in the world.

And yet . . .

Part of my unease comes, I suppose, from the fact that this decision was made by the White House Council on Competitiveness. This is a panel I always have found somewhat suspect.

Partly, it's that no really competitive person I know would waste time on a council. Partly, it's that most of the group's suggestions for making America "competitive again" seem to involve the destruction of some living thing--trees, for example, or the wretched spotted owl.

Then, of course, there is that fact: that the White House Council on Competitiveness is chaired by the vice president of the United States, Dan Quayle.

"Hey Danno, what'da we care, who misses those damn passenger pigeons anyway . . . "

I do not intend to engage in vulgar Quayle-bashing. After all, people of lesser intellect have occupied Blair House--though most of them later were placed in the charge of public conservators.

What I do question is the vice president's taste. The first genetically engineered vegetable to be put before consumers reportedly will be a tomato called--I am sorry to say--FlavrSavr, developed by the Davis-based firm, Calgene. According to the company's spokesman, FlavrSavr is designed to "rot" more slowly than normal supermarket tomatoes.

However, it will presumably taste the same--only for longer periods of time. Those of us who grow our own vegetables--and most particularly tomatoes--understand what that means. We know that the red things sold in supermarkets as tomatoes are, at best, Potemkin produce--which is to say, a lot of effort just for show.

Quayle, I suspect, is not much bothered by such things. He is, after all, from the Midwest, where, it must be said, people believe tomatoes are things you use to give ketchup color. I do not mean to suggest that the Midwest is without its virtues. In the main, though, they are the sort engendered by wearing hair shirts.

Let us for one moment digress: Not all of agribusiness's innovations are unwelcome. For instance, Sugar Snap Peas, which deserve to be esteemed above all their kind, are the product of a 10-year breeding program undertaken by Calvin Lamborn of the Gallatin Valley Seed Co. in Twin Falls, Idaho. The first of the breed were released only in 1979.

Moreover, anyone who gardens understands the constant tension between the austere and discrete demands of peak flavor and the natural human impulse--exacerbated by the competitive impulse--toward grandiosity. It is precisely that urge that has created my own garden's current cucumber crisis.

Now, as a boy, I never much cared for cucumbers. I thought they were something your maiden aunt put in sandwiches without crusts. Actually, I never had a maiden aunt, though one of my uncles did marry a woman who was a teetotaler. This I always ascribed to the fact she was raised by Protestants, which also explained her alarming affection for Jell-O molds.

In any event, as an adult I have learned to savor cucumbers fresh from the garden. I grow a Japanese variety called Early Perfection. I know perfectly well that they are at their peak when they are about 9 inches long and perhaps 4 inches in circumference. I cannot, however, resist the impulse to see just how big they can get and still taste better than their store-bought relations. As a result, I am at this moment, in possession of perhaps 40 linear feet of cucumbers and in desperate need of a good pickle recipe.

Then there's the matter of the cabbages. I grow two varieties every winter, a Japanese red called--with daring multiculturalism--Scarlett O'Hara and a Danish white called Erdeno. If the latter is judiciously harvested, each plant yields an additional 4- to 6-pound head in the spring. When you can't give any of it away, that's a lot of cabbage. The fact is, we're up to our hips in the stuff. And, no matter how good it is for you, there comes a point . . .

For example, I find it hard to believe that anyone could tire of my slaw of raw chopped cabbage dressed with handmade curried mayonnaise. Still, the last time I served it to my wife, she leaned across the table, rested her hand on mine and gently said, "I know you like this. I know you went to a lot of trouble to make it. But if you ever ask me to eat it again, I will have you disemboweled--by wild dogs."

That's a sentiment the breeders of FlavrSavr may wish to keep in mind.

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