Saturday, September 3, 2011

No funny vegetables

There's a concept in fine arts marketing known as "threshold" art--it's the stuff that gets people past the doorway, that gets them to buy that first ticket. In visual art it's Monet, probably; in theater it's the musicals put on by the regional houses. In classical music it's often the school field trip to Symphony Hall. It's familiar, not too expensive, easy to understand, and ideally located right in the community.

The threshold experience gives you a taste for more. No one ever started going to the theater by checking out the experimental storefront in the sketchy neighborhood, or instrumental music by buying a subscription to the Kronos Quartet. But they just might get there via Brigadoon or Beethoven.

I'm sure this concept exists in other fields as well--you don't buy your first food processor as a high-end professional one from some obscure online source. You go down to Target and buy it on price and looks.

Home grown vegetables need a threshold level, too. I've got 220 square feet growing for two nutrition programs. The recipients are very excited about the produce I bring them, until I bring them a Dragon's Egg cucumber (pale yellow and fist shaped), or a light green or dark yellow zucchini (heck, a zucchini, period), or a green-when-ripe tomato, all planted by well-meaning volunteers who had already passed this threshold.

These people are barely familiar with standard vegetables. Several times this summer I've gotten "what's that" accompanied by a skeptical, slightly disgusted look. And I leave the veggie and walk away, thinking, well that's going in the garbage.

Several gardeners I've worked with over the past two summers are gaga to plant unusual vegetables--black carrots and white eggplants and blue tomatoes--for kids, food pantries, and new gardeners, as though somehow if the vegetables are weird enough they'll get eaten, whereas the ordinary ones are just too, well, ordinary and that's why people aren't trying them. I admit, the shock value is fun and even educational, but if the point is that you want people to eat this stuff, don't hand them something that doesn't look, to them, like food.

If you're trying to get someone to do something new, don't start at the geek end. Start at the familiar. Some nice Better Boys and standard Romas are going to look familiar and safe. A good old Danvers carrot will get eaten--and the person eating it, who has maybe never had a freshly dug carrot before, is going to be amazed at the difference in taste to the orange wooden sticks they sell at the Safeway.

I feel the same way about heirlooms. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a hybrid tomato, grown from seed or nursery start. Why disdain or discourage the new gardener, because somehow their effort isn't pure enough? I never grew heirlooms until I started talking with other gardeners--we're talking years and years of standard hybrids--I needed it to be comfortable and familiar before I went out on that limb.

There's safety in the familiar. We don't need more foodies. We just need people to eat fresh, home grown produce.


  1. Ouch! As a longtime gardener and garden writer I'm guilty of just about everything you mention here.

    I needed this wake up call. Thank you.

  2. "I feel the same way about heirlooms. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a hybrid tomato, grown from seed or nursery start. Why disdain or discourage the new gardener, because somehow their effort isn't pure enough?"

    I just have to say, YES to this. I get so freaking tired of the holier-than-thou attitude of it all. I started with hybrids I picked up at a nursery 10+ years ago. I was amazed and titillated at how much better even those tasted. When one of them was yellow (it was a mislabelled Beefy Boy or Better Boy or whatever) my mind was thoroughly blown. That is what started me on the path looking up "weird" tomatoes and I haven't looked back since, but we all have to start somewhere, and even if we stay with the hybrid veg, at least something is being grown and a greater appreciation for the food we eat is fostered.

  3. Exactly. You want to blow their minds AFTER you've hooked them. ;)

  4. Michael, I think what happens is we all, in whatever profession or passion, drop into our echo chambers. It seems so obvious that a yellow tomato is really cool, until you try to feed it to a 16-year-old pregnant ward of the state, who is convinced that it isn't ripe, and whose idea of fresh is to eat the pizza right when it's delivered. I actually had this conversation with such a person.

  5. Wow. Really useful post and commentary -- thank you.

    If one's goal is food justice (e.g., making healthy, organic produce available to all people), then many of us (myself included) need to dial down the food snobbery.

  6. I don't think it's snobbery. I think it's well meaning, just lacking understanding or experience in real world situations.