The father of the 1015 Texas sweet onion stared at the salad bar, considering his options. I had come all the way to Atlanta to meet Leonard Pike, a 73-year-old former horticulture professor at Texas A&M University who’d founded the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center in 1992 and run it until his retirement, in 2006. During his forty-year-long career, Pike, an Arkansas native who was in grade school before his family got indoor plumbing, developed fourteen varieties of onions, carrots, and cucumbers that to date have made billions of dollars for vegetable growers in Texas. Mostly, he did this by selective cross-breeding. That’s what led to the maroon carrot, one of Pike’s signature creations, and also to his crowning achievement, the 1015. I tracked him down because I wanted to know what had gone into raising such famous spawn. In Texas the 1015 has an economic impact of around $350 million per year, and since 1997, it has been the official state vegetable. In the words of the House Concurrent Resolution that made it so, “the Texas sweet onion is as distinctive as the state from which it originates, and it will no doubt serve as a fitting emblem for the bounties of nature with which our state is blessed.”
Pike and his wife, Roxy, had met me at a Ryan’s restaurant on the interstate several miles from his home. The Pikes wanted to grab a healthy-ish early dinner, and naturally, I wanted to graze a salad bar with a man who had spent his career improving vegetables. When we got to the onions—the plain white variety—he watched my tongs hover over the slices, then laughed when I dropped some on his plate and mine. He eyed the other likely non-farm-fresh vegetables awaiting us in dishes nestled into the ice. “What have we here?” he asked himself. Pike squinted at the iceberg lettuce and slowly, methodically filled up the rest of his plate. He plucked a baby corn. He pinched a few papery radish slices. Finally, he dumped a fluorescent-lit clump of carrot shreds on his tray before drizzling some ranch dressing over the greens. I felt bad for the guy; Leonard Pike deserves a better salad bar. As we sat down at the table, Roxy quickly said a prayer. “Dear Lord, please help Leonard tell his story and bless this food. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Pike’s original focus had been pickles. He came to A&M in 1967 to breed a better cucumber. The pickle industry was in trouble then, he told me, popping a pale slice of cucumber into his mouth with his long, crooked fingers. “Cucumbers would grow at different speeds on the vine.” Over time, Pike was able to get them to ripen on the vine at the same moment, which was a godsend for the industry. But he didn’t stop there. Next, he figured out how to grow stronger specimens, so that they could better withstand the force of the machine pickers. “How much pressure can cucumbers handle?” he asked. A lot, when Pike was done with them. So the pickle people came to really love him, especially when he developed a seedless variety.
All of this made Pike a star in the agricultural community, a badass veggie god. Soon enough, the onion growers came calling. Pink root disease was going around, and they needed a stronger, resistant onion variety with better yields. Plus, if possible, it would be nice to have a crop to