Giving Our Fruits and Vegetables Their Names

For a few decades now I and so many others have been enjoying an extraordinary unfolding of vegetables and fruits in our co-ops and farmers' markets. We’ve loved that they tasted good, that they’ve been gorgeous to behold, and that they’ve been so satisfying to cook. Food magazines and cookbooks have helped a broad audience make sense out of new foods they’re seeing, their qualities, and their possibilities. But as a chef, shopper, gardener and pursuer of produce more than three decades, I’ve been thinking about what it would be like if we started to get more precise about what it is we’re eating by knowing the varietal names of our fruits and vegetables.

In our co-ops and farmers markets we’re experiencing a great more diversity than we did even as late as the 1970s—many kinds of lettuces, sprouts, mushrooms, citrus. A generation  ago, however, there were often just two kinds of lettuces in grocery stores (Romaine and Iceberg), no such thing as arugula or salad mix, no fresh herbs, and garlic came in little boxes and we didn't think about the type (green garlic? hard neck? soft neck?), let alone their names. It's a thrill to discover the diversity of flavors and uses.

But beyond the deliciousness of this diversity, there is safety in numbers. If one variety of apple froze in a late frost, it’s good that the farmer or back yard gardener had another variety that bloomed later. At least we will have apples. Growers plant not only for consumer preferences, but to cover the bases of possible adversity. Having all ones eggs in a single basket has always been a gamble, never a sound strategy.

Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Blondköpfchen Tomato, (aka Little Blonde Girl) East German heirloom obtained by Seed Savers Exchange from Gatersleben Seed Bank. Small golden yellow 1" fruits borne in giant clusters, excellent sweet taste. Enormous yields and rarely a cracked fruit. Bears until frost. Indeterminate, 75-80 days from transplant.

I like knowing what’s what with produce. I've learned why excess rain in California makes spinach extra-sandy, and which variety of spinach is good for what. Bloomsdale, a very crinkly heirloom, is more durable than the flat-leafed Tyvee or American, for example, and makes a great wilted salad.

To know the names of things is a deeply human inclination, and naming is something we do all the time (we know the names of our favorite cars, phones, wines). Names are very efficient; naming offers shortcuts to specificityand it allows us to easily seek out and repeat very specific experiences.

Yes, it’s a potato, but with all the kinds of potatoes available, what were those little odd finger shaped potatoes we found last summer that we’d loved to taste again? What about that juicy yellow peach with reddish skin (did you know there are over 2,000 varieties of peaches?)? Or that golden, sweet and sour cherry tomato? (tomato variety estimates vary between 4,000-10,000 and beyond) or even your basil (there are 40-60 varieties)? How do you describe an edible to the farmer, the produce manager, our family and friends based on a memory that might be weak when it comes to descriptors? Names make it easy to communicate and give us a way to build a relationship to those foods that have nourished us, or thrilled us.

The resurgence of connecting more closely to our food is helping us rediscover some of our lost food culture and is cause for real celebration. As we continue on this journey to knowing more about our food I'm hopeful that learning the names of our favorite fruits and vegetables will play a part. Not only can it help make the journey richer, but when we can name the item we're looking for (and buy it), it's more likely that our producers and grocers can ensure it's available to us.