In New Orleans, a plan to bring back a favorite vegetable
After Hurricane Katrina, a traditional vegetable failed to flourish, but one man is vying for its recovery.
Lance Hill has a vision.Skip to next paragraph
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He sees neighbors swapping mirlitons over the back fence, like they used to do. He sees blighted lots covered with tidy horizontal trellises, where the big leaves of mirliton vines form shade canopies for neighbors to sit under, with mirlitons hanging down for the picking. He sees microbusinesses built around mirlitons, maybe even "Ninth Ward Mirliton Jam."
But the Mirliton Man's first step is to "restore the traditional mirliton variety that was lost over the last several years in particular. I think it was wiped out by Katrina," Hill said. "I want people to be able to grow them like they did 30 years ago, without a variety of sprays in the garage."
After the big storm, Hill and other growers, including some commercial growers in Plaquemines Parish, tried to root new plants from store-bought mirlitons (or chayotes, as most of the country knows them). But supermarket varieties are from Costa Rica. They grow at elevations of 3,000 to 4,000 feet and need a lot of chemical help to survive in south Louisiana.
"We needed to find the traditional variety," Hill said — and the heirloom ones don't have names. After a couple of years hunting outside the flood zone, he found Ervin Crawford in Pumpkin Center, who had gotten his mirliton starts from another farmer in Tangipahoa Parish. The original was purchased in Kenner when that town consisted of truck farms.
Hill started growing the backyard vegetables. By Mother's Day, Hill had 18 potted mirliton plants, enough to give away in a project with the Crescent City Farmers Market. Their newsletter advertised the "Adopt-a-Mirliton" project, for serious growers who would like to raise a mirliton vine, with the understanding that they will bring half their crop back to the market and help propagate the variety.
"We got an incredibly enthusiastic response [to] Lance sitting at a table in the middle of the market with the beautiful plants he'd grown," said Emery Van Hook, director of markets at marketumbrella.org, which runs the Crescent City Farmers' Market. "Our shoppers are incredibly curious and passionate about local food and local food culture, and I think it's one of the most culturally significant products at the market."
Last fall when mirlitons were in season, the market had two mirliton vendors, Van Hook said.
"They sold out almost as soon as they put them out on the table," she added.
"Serious growers" who contacted Hill were given the plants. The summer's early heat, and then the rain after it, took a heavy toll, but there have been survivors, too.
Ann Butcher's plant is now blossoming, after a period of "awful peakedness" when she thought it wouldn't survive, she said. Butcher used to live in an old house that had its own mirliton vine.
"Everybody used to have them," she said. "They're not all over the place any more. You never bought them; you used to just go pick them somewhere.
"I had been thinking of planting [mirlitons] anyway" when she saw Hill's notice, Butcher said. She doesn't garden much, but she decided she really wanted to plant things that "are hard to come by. I planted a fig tree that was really doing well, except the birds took all my figs."
When visiting Butcher in the Bywater neighborhood, Hill realized that many people have quit growing the perennial at home because so many people now have wooden security fences instead of chain link, a natural trellis.