Did you know that we make our salads the way we make our superheroes?
Rio red grapefruit by Dan Zen, on Flickr
That is, a lot of the produce we use was created by mutations. And I don’t mean just accidental, gee-isn’t-this-an-interesting-random-variation mutations, like the Hass avocado we discussed in the post for avocado ice cream from Chicago.
I’m talking sudden, serious, Marvel Comics style mutations. Consider, for example, the Rio Red grapefruit, pictured above. The manner of the Rio Red’s creation went something like this:
No, really. But to explain how we used super-science to create super-mutant fruits and vegetables, we have to go back to the 1920s. In 1928, a study observed that exposure to X-rays could produce mutations in barley.
One year later, a pink grapefruit tree in Texas naturally produced a mutant fruit with orange-red flesh. That fruit, patented in 1933, would be marketed as the Ruby Red grapefruit. (No, I don’t know why people keep saying the patent was in 1934. Looks like the patent says 1933 to me.)(Click to expand details of the patent on the Ruby Red grapefruit.)
Patented Jan. 24, 1933 Plant Pat. 53
The object of my invention is the production of a new type of seedless grape fruit, pink to red colored rind showing pink tint thru the rind, red flesh deepening to a ruby red border where pulp and rind contact. The fruit is illustrated in the accompanying drawing, in which figure 1 is a perspective view of the fruit, and figure 2 is a section thru the center of the fruit.
On March 30th, 1929, a fruit was gathered which showed a colored rind as well as a red colored flesh.
[ * * * ]
No stock budded from this limb has been exhibited or sold. At this time, I have 1,100 or more trees in the nursery that will caliper three fourths to 1 inch in size besides some 15,000 budded at various times during past season. Preparing to bud about 7500 more immediately.
What I claim is: A colored seedless grape fruit as shown and described, characterized by a deep pink almost ruby red color of the flesh, and an external pink rind blush, the fruit having few or no seeds.
The knowledge that genetic mutations could be induced, combined with the commercial success of the sweeter, more visually interesting Ruby Red grapefruit, led to an industry in plant mutations. In the 1940s, David Burpee of the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Corporation experimented with chemically-induced mutations using colchicine, a plant extract used to treat gout at the time.
In animals, one extra chromosome produces profound malformations; an entire set of extra chromosomes fails to produce a viable living cell. In plants, however, the results are more like the ones pictured at the above right. Burpee described them in the February 25, 1940 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune:
“The colchicine,” said Mr. Burpee, with a twinkle, “has about the same effect on the marigold as spinach on Popeye the Sailor. The plants, two to two and a half feet tall, have much greater vigor than other marigolds. The main trunk and branches are thick and heavy; the leaves broad and leathery, and the flowers profusely borne on the tops of the upright plants. Tetra begins blooming in about 19 weeks from seeds, which should be started early, indoors, if possible. It is as easy to grow as any marigold, and marigolds are one of the easiest of all flowers to raise.”
Hmm. A 1940s-era serum used to turn an ordinary specimen into something much stronger, taller, and heartier. Remind you of anyone you know?
In 1947, after the war, an army base on Long Island was converted into Brookhaven National Laboratory, a place where the Atomic Energy Commission could experiment with nuclear energy. The public’s imagination about the potential of nuclear energy was ignited, and it wasn’t forgotten that genetic changes in plants could be triggered by radiation (like the X-rays in the 1928 study).
But helpful mutations bring us back to grapefruit, and Brookhaven. Remember how the 1930s-era Ruby Red grapefruit was orange-red? In the 1970s, botanists in Texas worked with scientists at Brookhaven to expose grapefruit seeds to gamma rays from radioactive cobalt. The mutants were planted, and in 1971, the Star Ruby grapefruit was developed from one of the mutant seeds–five times redder than the original Ruby Red and even more intensely sweet. In 1985, this was replaced by the Rio Red, a version that’s easier to grow.
Hmmm. Gamma rays from the 1960s producing dramatic color change and increased intensity? Why does that sound familiar?
We’ve moved away from random mutations and toward gene splicing (for better or worse) in our development of new produce, but that doesn’t mean the world has given up. China, for example. In 2006, sweet potato seeds aboard their second manned space mission were exposed to cosmic radiation as part of an experiment. The resulting hybrid, Purple Orchid Three, was briefly a culinary hit in China.
Hmmm. Exposure to cosmic rays causing dramatic changes that ultimately result in fame?
All of this makes me wonder… what the heck does Stan Lee put in his salads?!
From the box of F.J. from Sun City, Arizona. Some cards suggest a family history in Missouri and Kansas.
Mixed Greens and Fruit Salad
1/4 c. vinegar
1/2 c. orange juice
2 t. orange peel
1 juice of lemon
1/4 c. sugar
1 c. salad oil
1 t. dry mustard
1 t. salt
Refrigerate and shake well.
2 large oranges
2 large avocados
2 large grapefruit sections
2 medium size red onion
2 heads romaine or spinach
1 head lettuce
1-2 heads red lettuce
Slice oranges. Peel and cube avocado.
Cut up grapefruit sections. Combine with some of dressing and chill overnight.
Mix with greens just before serving.
Peg M. recipe