Eggplants get their 15 minutes of fame

July 25, 1991|By Michael R. Driscoll and Arthur Hirsch

Don Mantz had seen that face somewhere before. On "Nightline" maybe. Or was it a David Frost interview?

It was former President Richard M. Nixon, all right: the ski-jump nose, the heavy jowls, the protruding brow. But this time it was different; it was purple. And it was growing out of the ground in Millersville. It was an eggplant. And it was only the beginning of a bumper crop of celebrities.

After Mr. Nixon, grew another one of the purple vegetables -- very nice for a Parmesan or just frying in olive oil with a little garlic -- that looked remarkably like comedian Bob Hope.

"This never happened before," marveled Mr. Mantz, 62, a local businessman who helps out from time to time at Pumphrey's Farm Market on Veterans Highway, where the vegetables were on sale. "Sometimes one eggplant will show up, but there's a one in ten thousand chance that you'd have four in the same batch. It must be the freak weather we've been having."

Could be. But Nat Pumphrey, a member of the family who has owned the stand and the farm that supplies it for the past 30 years, disagreed.

"I don't think it's the drought," he said, "it must be in the seed."

For whatever reason, the Pumphrey farm -- in the family for a century -- was suddenly coming up celebrities. Mr. Nixon and Mr. Hope were followed by an eggplant with a bulbous nose and a green stem that looked rather like a shock of hair falling over the forehead. Could it be? Yes, former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. Mr. O'Neill, who could always work a crowd, was joined by Jimmy Durante. In purple.

It was the stuff of supermarket tabloids. Simply baffling.

"We usually get about three a year," said Mr. Pumphrey, "but never four at once, or as distinctive as this, and the season is only about two weeks old. I first noticed them about two weeks ago, but I didn't want to pick them just yet. In fact, we may have about six more, but they're not fully grown yet, so we'll have to see."

An official of the Smithsonian Institute's Scientific Event Alert Network could not verify the frequency of plants looking like people because it is so subjective. He suggested checking with "our folklore people."

Barbara Lau of the Smithsonian's Folklife offices said they had no information on plant-person resemblance and suggested talking to an agricultural representative from the University of Maryland.

Dave Martin, an agricultural extension agent in Anne Arundel County, said it is "atypical" for vegetables to display human characteristics.

"Mostly, eggplant tends to resemble a sort of purple, fleshy pear shape," he said.

As for four such caricatures, more or less at once, "that's kind of coincidental," he added. "It may relate to the kind of weather we've been having, that triggers some sort of quirk, or it could be genetic."

Mr. Mantz speculated that there was roughly an 80 percent chance that the seeds from these eggplants could produce similar offspring.

"I don't think anybody has ever thought of this before," he said. "Most folks will look at a plant, and then whomp, it goes into the meal."

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