The warty, drunken heirloom vegetables of New England
Why does our local produce have such blunt, weird names?
As vacationers hit the road this summer, roadside fast-food joints will do their best to lure them in with foods carefully named to be irresistible: Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwiches, Super Supreme Pizza, Cool Lime Refreshers. But if you drive off the road a ways to a New England farmers market or garden store, you may discover that a different theory of nomenclature applies. Here you may be greeted with such bluntly named choices as Dinosaur kale or Howling Mob corn. Come fall, you might pick up a Red Warty Thing pumpkin and some Sheep’s Nose or Knobby Russet apples. Some appellations are even more unpalatable: Bloody Butcher corn, Bull’s Blood beets, Rat’s Tail radishes.
These are just a taste of the cultivar names found in heirloom, and some more recent, produce varieties popular in New England, though the origins of the seeds are diverse. Then and now, New Englanders appreciate fruit and vegetable names that are direct, solid, and unapologetic, not unlike the famed regional character—names that say, “Yep, that’s what it is, now eat up.” This tradition of food naming—so divergent from the one that prevails in the larger American marketplace—hints at an economy around food that long precedes fast-food restaurants and grocery chains, and that is making a resurgence today.
Christie Higginbottom, horticultural historian at Old Sturbridge Village, explains that the strategy behind cultivar names is one of old-fashioned practicality. Bespeaking a time when most people grew their own produce or bought it from local farmers, and needed to distinguish between dozens of varieties, these names are clear descriptions of the plant in question. The Red Warty Thing, for example, sports a skin like that of a plague victim. (Vegetables are often bequeathed more absurd names than fruits, tomatoes and some apples excepted, which is both a reflection of their appearance and, perhaps, their overall nonsweetness.)
Some names enchant as much for their story as their melodiousness. “Howling Mob” was unnamed until it got to market and the farmer selling it was besieged by customers. The Jewett Red apple is known colloquially in New Hampshire and Maine as the Nod Head because the farmer who grew it, Mr. Jewett, was famed for nodding vigorously as he walked.
Other names enter the vernacular without any clear provenance. Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed lettuce features leaves with such tightly scalloped edges as to look frizzy. But as to the first and most bewitching part of the name, the best guess points to the mature leaves’ tendency to get loose and sloppy. Combine that with the lettuce’s charming pink blush, and you have to assume she’s been sipping something extra with her water.
Pumpkins and squashes come in for some of the silliest names, likely because they often have the most risible appearance. Modern breeders seem determined to outdo their forebears, calling pumpkins by such names as Mr. Fugly, Mr. Wrinkles, Early Scream, and Flatso. There is also a “naked seeded” variety—that is, one where the seeds have invisible hulls—called Lady Godiva.
Ben Watson, author of “Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables” and “Cider, Hard and Sweet,” describes 19th-century consumers as knowledgeable and discerning. They expected variety and would never have tolerated a modern supermarket’s offering of just one or two pumpkins, squashes, or kale. “Once you had centralized distribution,” he says, “markets were under pressure to sell produce that was unobjectionable to the most people, both in name and taste.”
While supermarkets opt for neutral or blandly positive names—Honeycrisp, for example—Watson notes that colorful names were traditionally, and successfully, used for a different kind of marketing. “You wanted something catchy, that told people what it was and that would stick in their minds.” Since a beloved apple or lettuce might be at market only three weeks, there was a lot to remember. Watson says that 19th-century growers and shoppers found the names as funny as modern growers do. “They called it as it was, but the names definitely reflected the New England character by being eccentric and having a quirky sense of humor.”
There are names that are meant to tease, although they can sound more like insults. The early-19th-century bean Lazy Housewife was popular because it was prolific, easy to pick, and didn’t require de-stringing. Wives whose days were spent in house and farm work from dawn to bedtime probably got over the slur pretty quickly and just reveled in the bean’s glory. The modern “ornamental” warted gourd called Lunch Lady, on the other hand, is a name best kept off school grounds.
As the interest in local food grows, and farmers return to selling their food directly to consumers—according to the USDA, the national count of farmers markets grew from 1,755 in 1994 to nearly 8,000 in 2012—it seems possible that the warts-and-all names will reenter the vernacular. “When people hear some of these names, they assume there is a story,” says Higginbottom. “They want to know more, and they want to try heirlooms as part of a ‘collector’s mentality,’ if you like, but then if they enjoy the food, they also form a relationship with it. They respond to its complex taste and personality.”
And food with some personality may be something Americans are ready for once again. Having tasted the Red Delicious and found it’s not so delicious, we might be willing to embrace the uglier and weirder—but more honest, and undeniably more poetic—local gem that is the Knobby Russet.