Jennifer E. Beaver
When I came across “Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed” lettuce, I knew I had to find out the story behind that name.
That started me thinking about all the other weird and wacky names bestowed on heirloom vegetables, those older and sometimes historic varieties that gardeners have passed down through time.
One of the most famous is “Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter” tomato. The story goes that Charlie owned a radiator repair shop in West Virginia during the Depression (I mean the last depression—the one in the 1930s). He serviced heavy trucks that hauled coal and timber. Climbing those long, steep hills sometimes proved too much for the radiators. Fortunately, Charlie’s repair shop was nearby. Smart cookie Charlie located his shop at the bottom of a hill, and the disabled trucks coasted right to him.
But back to the tomato. In his spare time, Charlie gardened. One of his favorite tomatoes was “German Johnson,” a big beefsteak type. He crossed “German Johnson” with three other tomatoes until he created a high-performing plant that pumped out lots of huge, delicious one-pound tomatoes. Charlie sold those plants for $1 a piece– big money in those days. With the profit, he paid off his $6,000 mortgage.
Other heirlooms carry the name of the family or person who bred or discovered it. For example, there’s “Aker’s Plum” tomato from the—you guessed it—Aker family in Pennsylvania. Pretty straightforward. Others, not so much. Take the “Paul Robeson”– a dark, deeply flavorful Russian tomato named after an African-American opera star. Why in the world was some tomato breeder in the Ukraine thinking about—and most likely listening to—an American opera star? There’s a story in every name.
Some heirlooms, such as the “Cherokee Trail of Tears” bean, recall an historic event. In the winter of 1838, the U.S. Army forced the Cherokee people over the Smoky Mountains and relocated them in Oklahoma. Tucked into the packs of the weary travelers was a small symbol of hope, home and future: their favorite bean. Along the way, they buried 4,000 men, women, and children, and so the journey became known as the Trail of Tears.
Other names are simply charming. Who wouldn’t want to eat a “Moon and Stars” watermelon? The name describes the small yellow dots (stars) and crescents (moon) on the dark green firmament of the sturdy watermelon rind.
Unfortunately, the origins of “Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed” lettuce have so far escaped me. So I guess I’ll just have to make up my own story.