Scientists develop treat for singles: mini-lettuce

May 05, 1991|By Knight Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- At last, science has solved one of the grea dilemmas of the single person: how do you keep a head of lettuce fresh until you finish it?

The answer: miniature heads of lettuce.

Thanks to scientists in California, shoppers will soon be able to buy tiny heads of iceberg lettuce -- so small they're only the size of a tennis ball. They're designed to be eaten at one sitting, perfectly sized for a single salad.

The Father of Midget Lettuce is a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, William Waycott, who with geneticist Edward Ryder bred the surprise creation during biological research in the mid-1980s.

"We expected small plants because of [tinkering with] the dwarf gene," Mr. Ryder said. "But we didn't expect literally a Xerox reproduction set at 25 percent of the original. If you didn't have a size reference, you'd think it was a normal head of lettuce."

It tastes like a normal head of lettuce, too, the scientists insist. But more, a tiny head of lettuce is -- let's face it -- sort of cute, as farm products go.

"To be quite honest, the first thing that struck me is that they're attractive," Mr. Waycott said, somewhat sheepishly. "They're nice to look at. There's something about the diminutive."

Ever since the discovery, the scientists have carefully breeded, tested and sampled the lettuce at USDA's Agriculture Research Station in Salinas, Calif. Now they're on the verge of putting little lettuce in the big time.

Within a year, they expect to turn the magic seeds over to seed companies, and a year after that, if all goes well, the first wave of midget lettuce will be appearing in grocery stores and restaurants.

"The obvious market is the single person who has a hard time getting through a whole head of lettuce without throwing part of it away," Mr. Ryder said.

Mr. Waycott added, "For restaurants, it offers a much different possibility than just chopped-up leaves, assuming it's prepared in certain ways."

Mr. Ryder, a lettuce research geneticist, has even bolder dreams.

"We envision it's going to be such a good-tasting product, sometime you'll see people walking down the street eating a head of lettuce like an apple."

Then he paused.

"Maybe that's a foolish dream," he said.

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