In Season: Lettuce
In the beginning (or at least in my childhood) there was iceberg lettuce, that light-green ball with more crunch than taste. Romaine hit dinner tables in the '70s, joined in the '80s by the occasional red or green leafy bundle. Twenty years later, ubiquitous bags of prewashed multicolored lettuce mix line the most conventional of supermarket shelves.
Lettuce connoisseurs now can take it one step further by exploring the multitudinous varieties of heirloom lettuce.
The exact definition of an heirloom seed remains controversial, but everyone agrees they must be open-pollinated. Open-pollinated plants reproduce naturally, at the whim of butterflies, bees and the wind. Over the centuries, people have identified the best results of this natural process, saved the seeds and passed them down to succeeding generations.
In the 1940s hybridization replaced open pollination as the most common method of fruit, flower and vegetable cultivation. To create a hybrid, botanists deliberately pollinate two breeds of parent plants. An apt comparison might be an arranged marriage as opposed to letting love take its course. Hybrids, unlike open-pollinated seeds, won't reproduce true to type, forcing growers to buy new seed every year.
Most experts also agree that heirloom seeds must date to before 1950, when industrialized agriculture became the norm. These varieties have stood the test of time, and often have an interesting history (Sanguine Ameliore, a French heirloom butterhead lettuce, was introduced to North America in 1906).
For consumers, flavor is the main difference. Hybrids are bred for the convenience of commercial growers. Resistance to disease, ease of harvest and shipping, and long shelf life take priority. Taste usually takes a back seat. Heirlooms may be trickier to grow, thinner skinned or easily perishable, but they reward eaters with delicate, nuanced flavors.
They also celebrate the variety in nature when it hasn't been pared down for agribusiness. Heirloom lettuces are crinkly and smooth, green, red, purple and pink, sharp and peppery, or buttery smooth.
Heirlooms come in four basic categories: romaine, crisphead, loose-leaf, and butter. Romaine covers a far wider range than the long, light-green leaves that are a familiar sight in Caesar salads. Their leaves can be short, fat, curly or, in the case of 'devils tongue' (bred by Oregon's Gathering Together Farm), a striking deep red. Crisphead varieties expand tastily upon the conventional iceberg, with tender leaves in soft shades of red and green.
Loose-leaf varieties make up the largest category. My favorite is Red Sails, a very pretty red lettuce that grows reliably and profusely. Italieniescher boasts a long, serrated, yet surprisingly sweet and tender leaf. Butter lettuces are, as the name implies, smooth and silky, enticing even reluctant salad eaters.
At the market, you will most commonly find heirloom lettuces as components of salad mixes. 'Big organic' brands like Earthbound might contain a few heirlooms, but you will find a higher percentage in mixes from local farms. These local mixes sometimes pop up at New Seasons or Whole Foods, and are sold in season at farmers markets and co-ops such as Food Front and People's.
Gathering Together Farm in Philomath develops many of its own open-pollinated varieties and sells a mix containing 12 varieties of lettuce, many members of the mustard family, and other specialty greens and edible flowers. Bittersweet Farms from Estacada sells a mesclun salad mix with 22 different kinds of greens and edible flowers.
Separate heads of heirloom lettuce are less common, but sometimes available. Recently at the Portland Farmers Market you could find Cocorde (a red oak leaf) and Samantha (a soft-headed butter leaf) at the Gathering Together booth.
Late spring and early summer is prime lettuce season in the Northwest, before the hot sun causes all but the most resistant breeds to bolt. But farmers using cold frames can extend the growing season into the cooler months, so visit your area farmers market to experience the full range of heirloom lettuces and their delicate evanescent charm.