How I became interested in vegetables, part two.

By Lois Burpee

Eight years of boarding school and college menus, and four years of stretching the dollar-a-day budget, while sharing an apartment with a sister or friend in the depression years, were a culinary vacuum, with one exception.  While at Wellesley College, I was introduced to Chinese food.  A group of students who had lived abroad and had some association with China met for inexpensive dinners in Cambridge or Boston at a Chinese restaurant.  Then a friend of one of my college friends opened a Chinese restaurant in Wellesley, and my friend and I visited its kitchen frequently.  I was fascinated with Chinese cooking methods and utensils.  Everything could be prepared so quickly.  These experiences intensified my delight later when I actually had my own vegetable garden.

I was a botany major at college.  After graduating in 1934, I spent two years in Baltimore studying.  Fortunately, my small apartment was near a farmers’ market.  I was hoping to find a job in the field of horticulture, and one day I received a letter suggesting that I write to the W. Atlee Burpee Company.  As luck would have it, the International Flower show was to be held in Baltimore in a few weeks.  The Burpee Company would have a booth there and would need temporary help for the duration of the show.  It was there that I met David Burpee.

After the show, I was asked to come to Philadelphia for an interview and was given the position of technical correspondent for the Flower Department.

I knew little about flower varieties, so spent many Saturday mornings in the summer studying the flowers in the trials field at Fordhook Farms on the edge of Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  Seed of all the flowers listed in the catalog were test grown along with test rows of the breeding work done in California.  There were vegetable trials also, but they were in a distant field.  Occasionally Mr. Burpee joined me there.

After a year I was asked to also do library research for Mr. Burpee on the history and development of marigolds and other major classes of flowers, such as zinnias and petunias.  To make it easier to have access to the library at the Museum of Natural History, I was given an office and typist in downtown Philadelphia.  Occasionally Mr. Burpee stopped in and took me out to lunch.  One day, quite unexpectedly, he proposed.  For the first time I became aware of his ploy to get me away from everyone at the main office.  Soon after, he left for an inspection trip to California and the downtown office was closed.

I came to Fordhook Farm as Mrs. Burpee in July 1938.  Now I had lots of time to spend in the flower rows and also the vegetable trials, but I also had to plan meals.  A huge vegetable garden had been planted for the homestead use.  It seemed that every vegetable in the catalog was growing there.  The gardener brought in baskets of whatever was ready to use (usually larger or beyond the best stage for delicacy) as he had done while Mr. Burpee was a bachelor.  Curiosity got the best of me.  There were so many vegetables listed in the catalog and growing in the vegetable-testing trial rows that I had never heard of.  And why so many varieties – did they have different tastes and textures?  I found out that they did.  I was fortunate to have an experienced cook in the kitchen, as all this was quite different from my past housekeeping experiences.  The following years I selected the seeds for any of the new varieties we were thinking of introducing through the catalog.

The first few years at Fordhook, while our daughter and son were young, I did not do the physical work in the garden but supervised the planting of the seeds so that we would have variety all through the season.  The soil here was different from any I had been used to, fine and heavy – even radishes had to be dug, and the root crops were stubby and tough.

Gradually the old gardener retired and I had to become more involved in the garden because my help did not have experience.  I was determined to do something about the soil.  We had riding horses, plenty of leaves in the fall, and lawn clippings in the summer – why not take advantage of them?  So I selected an area of the garden in which to improve the soil.  It was a strip twenty feet wide, and this width gave me eighteen-foot rows that were just right for most succession plantings for my household of five to six persons and even some extra for freezing.

This size garden I could almost handle by myself, and it became a pleasure to work in.  I did the planting and picking and supervised the weeding.  Yes, weeding needs supervision, for so often it disturbs the roots of the vegetables.  When the plants are young, I cut the weeds off at ground level with a knifelike tool called a horse’s hoof trimmer.  The less the soil is disturbed, the better the plants will grow.

As I plant seeds, I think of the size of the seed, what it is to become, and the struggle it will have to come through the earth.  When the directions on a seed packet say the plants should be ten or more inches apart and seeds are smaller than peas, I sow three or four seeds in each of the ten-inch spaces.  When the seeds sprout, the groups of seedlings help each other through the soil and there will not be gaps in the row.  Later, I cut out the extra plants.  Many new gardeners have said that they hate to thin out young plants, but this must be done.  Unless a plant has space in which to develop properly, it will not produce because it cannot get enough food.

Poring over the catalog to make out my seed order, I got curious as to how the breeders were making their taste tests, and I learned that they usually tested the vegetables raw as they examined them in the fields.  I discussed this with Mr. Burpee, commenting that, since the final use of vegetables was in the home, they ought to be tested as part of a meal.  Well, I gave myself quite a job with this suggestion.  Now our meals frequently included more than one kind of bean, pea, or beet.  Divided vegetable dishes and small garden labels came in handy for identification.  We didn’t always prefer the new introductions, but we discussed all their qualities – plant habit, ease of picking, and such.  We did not find a bean we preferred in flavor to Tenderpod, though others are better producers.

Early on I discovered the Lutz Green Leaf Winterkeeper beet, a late, very sweet variety.  But it’s an ugly duckling, with a tendency to have light rings that breeders do not like.  To me the flavor is the best of all beets, and the foliage stays green when cooked, as it does not have a red stem.  The company dropped this beet from the catalog one year – and I yelled.  It was not a good seller, they said.  Of course not, because the description did not point out its best qualities.  So they included it again with a more “tasteful” description, and it’s still in the catalog.  I’ve found that Lutz Green Leaf Winterkeeper is also the favorite of other kitchen gardeners.

Most of Burpee’s new vegetable introductions to American gardeners came from the Orient, and some indication of how they were cooked there came with them.  So I experimented with how they could be prepared in an American home.  I also had some help from the kitchen testing department of the Farm Journal, a magazine that had a long history of cooperation with the Burpee Company.  Missionaries from lands to which the vegetables were indigenous sent in more recipes.  This was fine, except when I was asked to prepare samples in quantity for the annual garden writers’ luncheons.  Then it was a job.  The writers asked for the recipes, and that is how I really got into vegetable cooking.  I was literally challenged into it.

Excerpt from “Lois Burpee’s Gardener’s Companion and Cookbook” (1983)

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