So we got this new (meaning, we’ve never gotten this one before, the company’s actually 9 years old) seed catalog in the mail the other day, and I’ve been elected to post about it. They’re called Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and you can find them on the internet here. They’re all about rare, organic, old, vegetable seeds. They do have some flowers, but nothing that rare as far as flowers are concerned, nor a very large selection. As far as the vegetables are concerned, though, it was certainly an eye-opener on the diversity within a species!
The first clue that there was going to be some really out of the ordinary stuff in this catalog was in the cucumber section. Now, almost everyone has seen the lemon cukes by now, but they also had pictures for “Mexican Sour Gherkin”, which looks just like a miniature watermelon, and Hmong Red and Chinese Yellow, as well as Poona Cheera which looks sort of like a mix between a sweet potato and a cucumber. In the cucumber section was also where I first noticed the quotes they were putting in (in this case, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius–and a lot of courage–to move in the opposite direction.” –Albert Einstein”).
At this point, it was impossible not to start making comparisons between them and Fedco. (That’s where the tale of two catalogs comes in.) But more on all of that later. First I want to finish drooling over all the many varieties found pictured in this catalog . . .they don’t even have a picture for everything they’re selling, though I’m sure they picked the most diverse pictures to use.
Things started getting truly weird when we got to Eggplant. The first picture is of “Thai Long Green”, which is lime green and quite slender. The next picture is for “Thai Green Pea”, which looks almost exactly like a slightly over-mature green pea (and the same size, too), and I would have never known it was an eggplant if someone hadn’t told me. Then there is also “Thai Yellow Egg”, which looks like an egg yolk with a stem coming out of it, and “Cambodian Green Giant,” that looks sort of like a green bell pepper, except that its bottom half is white. “Rosa Bianca” looks similar to a head of garlic, and “Ping Tung” looks like a tomato–and these are all eggplant!
Their melon selection is mind-boggling, as is their squash section. I have never seen such a large selection of melons of all shapes, sizes, colors, splotches, stripes and patterns. The same could be said of the squash, which often times looked like over-sized gourds, and came in colors from slate grey, to purple, to green, to tan, to hunter orange.
Just when I thought I’d seen it all, I got to the tomatoes. I know there are whole catalogs full of nothing but tomatoes, pages and pages of red fruit. The first 12 tomatoes here are green tomatoes. I grew some green tomatoes in this past year, so that wasn’t too surprising, though I confess to say I’ve never seen a green tomato the shape of a fat pork sausage. Next comes the neon orange tomatoes (including “Orange Banana”), and then then pink tomatoes (including an accordian shaped fruit, which was deeply fluted, and “German Lunchbox”, which looked almost exactly like an apple, complete with a yellow blush at one end and little yellow speckles all over it). Then we get a dozen purple tomatoes, complete with one that looks just like a Barlett pear. Then we finally get to the red tomatoes. . .and then the striped tomatoes. . .and then the white tomatoes!. . .and then the yellow tomatoes. I must say, the white tomatoes look quite gross. They look rather akin to the tomatoes I find up in the garden after a couple hard frosts and a chance to half rot–in a word, disgusting. And the yellow tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes, candle shaped and lemon or plum shaped. . .It was almost a surprise to actually see a mostly round yellow tomato!
And now we get to the part where we compare catalogs, between Fedco and Baker Creek. Both of these companies are against gene-altered plants, plant variety protection, and are apt to spread their ideas throughout the catalog. Fedco’s carries itself in such a way that even if you don’t agree with everything they say, you have to admire their poise and good humor. Baker Creek carries itself in such a way that even if you do agree with a lot of what they have to say, you still find them extremely annoying, and wish they’d please be quiet. This is most obvious in the quotes they choose to print; Fedco’s are usually more obscure (you’re not that likely to have heard them half a dozen times before), don’t repeat themselves, and can often be humorous or slightly subtle. Baker Creek, on the other hand, picks only quotes that are as blunt as a sledge hammer, have been heard before, and, to top it all off, after a few pages they got tired of finding new ones and instead switched to repeating one quote over and over again, like a grating recording that one gets stuck with when one is put on hold. They insisted on putting the quotes in a larger font and a different color, so it was impossible to ignore them. Several pages in the front and several pages in the back, as well as a centerfold spread (and this catalog is much slimmer than Fedco’s), were devoted to nothing more than Baker Creek propaganda, including pages of country music singers and people dressed up like cowboys.
Fedco’s is apt to print very long descriptions, talking about everything from yield, growing conditions, how it compared to other varietes, and taste. Baker Creek was more worried about telling you how old it was, where it came from, and how there are a lot of varieties in danger of becoming extinct, and how well it would sell in the markets, how nice they looked–and, oh, yes, of course they all taste great.
For instance, Aunt Ruby’s German Green.
I described it like this:
The cousins of the Brandywines, â€œAunt Rubyâ€™s German Greenâ€ tomatoes were quite a novelty, but that is about it. They didnâ€™t produce very well (that is, very many), though perhaps it was a bad year to ask. (Then again, droughts arenâ€™t that much of an anomaly around here, so if they canâ€™t take the conditions theyâ€™re just out of luck.) They arenâ€™t totally green when ripeâ€“they get a slight tinging of pink on the bottom, which spreads throughout the inside of the fruit. Their taste was described to me as â€œincredibleâ€ by the person who recommended them to me. To me, they tasted (and here I must borrow some Rundy-speak) like a Brandywine with all of the red sucked out. Sweet and fruity, yet with none of rich â€œredâ€ taste that makes you think TOMATO. As fruit, it was interesting. As a tomato, when it was sliced and placed amongst other tomaotes, no one would eat them until last. It just didnâ€™t taste right on a tuna fish sandwich or hamburger. So it was fun to try, but not really worth my time.
Fedco’s describes them like this:
One newspaper writer describes it as â€œa voluptuous chartreuse beauty, sassy and spicy like apple pie.â€ If you think green tomatoes are good only for mincemeat, your first taste of Aunt Rubyâ€™s will change your mind forever. I rate it second only to Brandywine for flavor and it is on just about everyoneâ€™s top ten list. Oblate 12-16 oz. fruits blush lightly yellow and develop an amber-pink tinge on the blossom end when ripe. Watch closely and donâ€™t allow them to get too soft before picking. The green flesh of this beefsteak is faintly marbled with pink. Flavor sweet and tart, rich and spicy. The central large tomatoes are the best. Flavor deteriorates when cold weather sets in. Created a sensation at our staff taste-testing in September 1996, where it was rated â€œgoodâ€ or â€œexcellentâ€ by all who tried it. Aunt Rubyâ€™s is not just the best green eating tomato, it also makes a delicious basis for salsa verde. From Ruby Arnold of Greenville, TN, who got it from her grandfather who brought it from Germany.
And Baker Creek describes them like this:
One of the largest green beefsteaks. Can grow to over 1 pound and are just delicious. They have brilliant, neon-green flesh with a strong, sweet and fruity flavor, much tastier than most red tomatoes. This family heirloom from Germany is beautiful. The 2003 winner of the 2003 Heirloom Garden Show’s taste test.
This description gets under my skin for several reasons. First if all, it’s a very poor description–what, exactly does “tasty” mean? Secondly, they seem very biased in the favor of green tomatoes. “Emerald Evergreen” is said to be “one of the best”, “Green Zebra” is “A favorite tomato of many high class chefs, specialty markets, and home gardeners. . .[and] the most striking tomato in our catalog.” “Green Grapes” is said to “Makes most red cherries taste bland in comparison. “Green Sausage is “The latest ‘Must Have’. It is is simply outstanding!” After awhile, you just can’t believe all the superlatives. Apparently all their tomatoes are better than any other tomato. Another thing that bothers me is its poor description of how it looks. If you pick these tomatoes when they’re still neon green, they taste like a green tomato–I mean, like an un-ripe tomato. They’re not ripe till the color fades and the pink blush begins. The fact that they do such a poor job describing a fruit I know makes me very leery of their descriptions of fruits that I don’t know.
In the end, the catalog is a nice picture book (and probably a very good place to find rare vegetables). But it certainly does not make very good reading material, nor does it make it very easy to figure out what to get.