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 sell in the winter, when onion money was being left on the table. Pike had mastered the cuke, but he knew this new task was not going to be easy. “Here’s the thing about onions,” he told me. “You just don’t go out there and plant onions. They’re very sensitive, and you only have a certain window each year when you can plant them. They’re daylight-sensitive. You know how you have to keep poinsettias in the dark to get them to turn red at the right time of year? Well, the onion has to have a certain amount of light to bulb. Without proper light, it’s either a tiny little onion or a long green one.”
Luckily for Pike, he wasn’t striking out into entirely uncharted territory. Onions have been grown in Texas since the late-nineteenth century, when Bermuda onion seeds from the Canary Islands were planted near Cotulla. In the thirties the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station inaugurated an onion-breeding program that led to the Grano 502, which is the mother onion to today’s so-called SuperSweet onions, such as the Granex varieties (Vidalia, Maui Maui, and NoonDay) and the 1015.
Pike’s attempt to dramatically improve on the Grano 502 began in 1977. For four years (with more than fifty graduate student assistants, Pike constantly reminded me), he and his team worked in fields, laboratories, and greenhouses. They cross-pollinated. They planted and harvested and planted and harvested. There were failed tries and setbacks. They grew freakishly large onions and saw crops decimated by hail. They tinkered with the amount of pyruvate, the chemical compound in onions that makes you cry. They basically stopped at nothing in their quest to build a better onion. “I even hooked up with guys from MD Anderson Cancer Center to increase the level of compounds that would be more healthy for people to eat,” Pike told me.
As the effort progressed, word began to spread that a better onion was coming, and everyone wanted to help. Pike and his assistants worked in South Texas on soil owned by Texas A&M as well as by local operators. “Farmers in the Valley would say, ‘Here, come use my land, no strings attached.’ ” Was he worried about spies, I asked him? “There was a bit of stealing,” Pike said with a chuckle. “But people didn’t really know what they were stealing. There were research numbers at the end of each row, in these really remote areas. But it was thousands of acres with all these numbers. 1020, 1021, 1115. No one really knew how valuable these things would become.”
“He made a lot of people very rich,” Roxy interjected. Pike just smiled and looked around for the waitress. His chicken-fried steak was on the way. I noticed he ate around the onions in his salad. “Onions were never my favorite vegetable,” he murmured.
By the early eighties, Pike was closing in on the sweet onion he’d been dreaming about. Harvests were getting better and more consistent. Especially good crops were celebrated with a trip to Chili’s for Pike and his team of scientists. Which was fitting—because as it turned out, the 1015 moon shot had a lot to do with the effort to build a better onion ring. “Do you like onion rings?” Pike asked, but it sounded more like a statement. He wanted to tell me why the 1015 was really created. It didn’t take long for the restaurant folks to hear about his research. “They wanted onions with single centers.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, so he pulled a maroon pen from his shirt pocket and started drawing on a paper napkin, scrawling overlapping circles. “Well, sometimes if you slice an onion, it looks like this,” he said, sliding the napkin over to me. Pike had some fire in his voice. He was getting excited. “What if you had an onion and it looked like a buncha circles kind of joined together? Your onion rings wouldn’t work, would they? Now do you see why onions need to be single-centered?” He started to draw a prettier onion, with parallel, concentric circles. He had a slight smile on his weathered face. He looked up when he finished and slid his aviator-shaped glasses up on his nose.
“They wanted—what’s the word? Conformity. A better onion is like this. These are rings you can peel off one at a time.”
Roxy looked over. “Outback and Chili’s—without Leonard they might never have offered the Awesome Blossom or Bloomin’ Onion.”
“When we found the right 1015,” Pike recalled, “we would take the plants straight from the fields to the fryer. We’d make our own Bloomin’ Onion.”
Roxy laughed. “Outback loved him so much,” she said, beaming as she recalled her husband’s glory days, when he had his own produce groupies. “His picture was up at the one in College Station.”
Pike turned sheepish. “I don’t feel like a celebrity,” he said. “I just loved what I did.”
Jason Sheeler is the articles editor at Glamour.