In 1990, Alex Paffenroth decided to diversify his 72-acre onion farm in Warwick, New York, and explore new markets. The market he ended up hitting was 50 miles south, at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. Twice a week, spring through fall, Paffenroth filled his pickup truck with staples — corn, lettuce, and potatoes — and drove to Manhattan, where he sold his produce to city dwellers eager to eat country-fresh crops.
In his first season at Union Square, Paffenroth realized that his customers were looking beyond the basics. Yes, they enjoyed farm freshness, but any produce out of the ordinary — such as purple peppers and potatoes — was snapped up at other booths. Paffenroth knew he needed to find a way to distinguish himself.
Fortunately for him, some plant breeders at the time were turning their attention toward vegetables that were stylish as well as tasty. These breeders were developing vibrant veggies that defied the usual color spectrum, sporting such unusual shades as magenta, cheddar, and neon red.
These flashy vegetables intrigued shoppers at farmers’ markets.
“Everybody likes something new,” Paffenroth says. “And the research I’ve seen in the trade journals and what’s been recently covered in magazines [shows] there’s a lot coming on line.”
One of the first color-funky veggies to become widely known was the purple potato. Purple potatoes have existed for nearly 4,000 years in the South American Andes and were the food of Incan kings. They have always been popular in Mexico, but most U.S. home growers had to order them from seed catalogs. In the early 1990s, when small farmers started experimenting with heirloom varieties not available in larger markets, these lively spuds entered the U.S. natural-food grocery market.
At the same time, most regions of the country saw a rise in the number of niche farms sized 49 acres or less. Small organic farms — which specialized in selling to natural-food markets, restaurants, and farmers’ markets — established themselves among those niche farms as sources of heirloom and specialty vegetables. And customers were coming to these farmers for something beyond the waxy, tasteless, and often pesticide-treated produce commonly available in the nation’s retail supermarkets.
Since the advent of the purple potato, natural-food groceries and farmers’ markets have diversified; purple potatoes now sit next to bins of pink, red, and blue potatoes. It’s not just their skins that shine; the unusual colors typically tint the potato’s entire flesh as well. Steamed or baked, these potatoes hold their brilliance; boiling, however, tends to dull the blues more than the reds. In the boiler, the reds also tend to hold their firmness better than the blues, which have a mealier texture and are thus better suited for baking or mashing.
Among the 200 vegetables Paffenroth now sells at the Greenmarket are 22 varieties of potatoes, organized by color. Mixed bags don’t sell so well, he says; the customers have their favorite colors, and they want to be able to take only those home.
Popular demand aside, price has been a factor in determining the availability and prevalence of colorful produce, says Randy Ducummon, a produce coordinator for the northern California region of Whole Foods. Purple artichokes at $3 a pop were attractive to the gourmet but not the ordinary shopper, Ducommon explains, until the drop in price this year to about $1.30 apiece.
“The price variance slowed down the appeal,” Ducommon says. “But this year the cost is a lot more comparable to regular artichokes.” In past years, he says, he’d be lucky if he sold half the 50 cases the stores would buy. This year, with the price point dropping, he cycled through 100 cases a week.
And the selection is only expected to increase as breeders turn out an ever more colorful rainbow of vegetables. Last year, All-America Selections — a nonprofit organization that tests new vegetables and selects winners based on performance in several categories, including taste and appearance — chose the carrot “Purple Haze” as an All-America Winner. The carrot, with its extraordinary purple exterior and orange interior, has become popular with both restaurant chefs and home cooks. An even newer carrot, “Atomic Red,” is now replacing the older hybrid “Nutri Red” because of its improved flavor and a bright red hue that, unlike “Purple Haze,” deepens when cooked.
Meanwhile, the humble cauliflower has gone gold. The “Cheddar” cauliflower, developed by Cornell University, sports bright-orange heads the color of boxed macaroni-and-cheese powder. And green and purple cauliflower have also settled into market bins.
For many of these brightly colored vegetables, the exotic shades aren’t just for fun. “Cheddar” cauliflower, for instance, has 25 times the amount of beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A) as the white varieties. Breeders are therefore experimenting with vegetable color not just for novelty but for health.
Color reveals a lot about the chemistry of produce: orange says beta-carotene, red indicates lycopene, and blue signifies anthocyanins. All of these chemical substances are antioxidants, beneficial constituents of fruits and vegetables that combat disease-causing free radicals. Because of these benefits, several universities (some in concert with the U.S Department of Agriculture) are researching and developing colored vegetables.
Perhaps the best-known plant engineered for its health benefits is the so-called “golden rice,” a genetically modified rice created with genes from corn and a soil bacterium (Erwinia uredovora). Much of the developing world relies on rice as a subsistence food, but rice alone is deficient in vitamin A. Inadequate vitamin A can lead to blindness and even death; by some estimates, more than 140 million people worldwide suffer from this deficiency. Golden rice was designed to produce beta-carotene, which is converted by the body into vitamin A.
But the rice has been controversial. Apart from the unknown health and environmental risks of developing and consuming genetically engineered foods — and skepticism about agribusiness profit-making motives — some analyses have shown that children would need to eat at least four pounds of rice daily to get the recommended daily allowance of beta-carotene.
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