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A Cook's Garden

Savor the Ugly Truth

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page H07

The people who set up food stores know what they're doing. It's the brightest, most luscious-looking apples and tangerines that beckon to you from the sidewalk. Once inside, the produce section is the first thing you see when you pick up your cart.

These tactics are mirrored in the larger marketplace of the natural world. A ripe tomato invites us to nibble, its color announcing that flavor and juiciness are at their peak, that red lycopene is at full nutritional potency. Even a non-fruiting crop, such as an orange carrot, sends visual messages about the traits bred into it to make it crunchy and sweet.


An Asian citrus called Buddha's hand wins no beauty contests. (Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

But what about ugly fruits and vegetables? What does a potato say to us from the dimmer light of its bin? Its message relies a lot on what we already know about it -- that inside the drab skin is flesh that, whether baked, mashed or fried, tastes mighty good. It's like the feeling we have about our children, that none of them is unattractive because we know so much about their souls. And why would a root vegetable, growing unseen and dirty, be anything but homely? The best thing you can say about a parsnip's looks is that it cleans up nice. But a parsnip lover knows it tastes as sweet as confetti-colored M&M's. Black scorzonera or brown burdock roots are only appetizing if you can picture them simmering in butter. Only a gourmet would fall in love with knobby celeriac at first sight.

Gardeners and farmers use the word "beautiful" to describe crops that have performed well, that lack the earmarks of disease, predation or poor growing conditions. A beautiful cauliflower is one that comes closest to the Platonic ideal for that particular type, whether it was bred for the creaminess of its curd or the mystical spirals you see in the chartreuse heirloom variety Minaret.

Some crops are only ugly until you learn their true virtues. You have to try the green-shouldered tomato varieties before you trust them to be ripe. The purplish-black ones aren't off-putting once you discover their rich flavor. If you've been won over by lumpy, asymmetrical Brandywine tomatoes, you find you look for lumpiness, just to re-experience that sublime taste.

Sometimes a name change is in order. A nondescript, rough-skinned little fruit went nowhere as Chinese gooseberry until some savvy marketer came up with the name kiwi. I'd recommend a similar repositioning for the Asian citrus called "Buddha's hand," a dangling cluster of bumpy yellow protuberances. To me it does little to honor the Buddha, his elegant fingers more characteristically raised in the "teaching posture" of joined forefinger and thumb. A new name might stress the aromatic properties of the thick rind and how well it lends itself to marmalade.

Look at the delicious old French squash called Brodé Galeux d'Eysines. Many old-time squash are warty, but this one looks as if peanut-shaped worms were crawling about its surface. I'm sure it has been much helped by a name that translates as "embroidered with pebbles."

Produce shoppers have become so much more adventurous that acknowledging a crop's odd appearance can be a plus. Take Ugli Fruit, the name given by its importer to a type of Jamaican tangelo. People are curious enough to look beneath its loose, wrinkled rind and discover the juicy, orange flesh, sweet and easy to eat in sections.

Perhaps this was the inspiration for the now-famous UglyRipe tomato. You know that something interesting is happening in the world of food when no less a figure than U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, goes to bat for a vegetable. The UglyRipe is a minimally hybridized version of a French heirloom tomato called Marmande, ribbed and irregular but big on flavor and -- unlike the typical market tomato -- hand-picked, red-ripe, year round. The winter crop, shipped from Florida, was winning raves from customers hungry for real tomatoes until the Florida Tomato Committee (composed of Florida growers) banned the out-of-state sale of most of the crop. It didn't conform to the standard of the "Florida Round" tomato -- perfectly red (from gas-ripening), mathematically round, but famously bland. The bill Specter co-sponsored last month seeks to redress this wrong. If he succeeds, we may actually get to decide for ourselves what makes a good tomato.

Back in the 1950s, there was an expression that a catty woman would use to describe another's unfortunate choice of clothing or furniture: "Her taste is all in her mouth." I suggest we revive it. But as a compliment.

Seeds of Brodé Galeux d'Eysines squash can be ordered from L'Atelier Vert, www.frenchgardening.com and from Fedco Seeds, www.fedcoseeds.com, 207-873-7333.


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