Now Gomiero has a new project. On a recent trip to Puglia, the heel of Italy, he was introduced to puntarelle, another member of the chicory family. The name means “spears,” but that translation hardly does it justice. If radicchio is temperamental, puntarelle might be considered absolutely unruly. The plant looks like a fennel bulb topped by asparagus spears growing out of a thicket of dandelion greens. Gomiero ate the greens cooked in a stir-fry and sampled the stems sliced thin and tossed with chopped anchovies, garlic, and olive oil. He was so entranced by the vegetable that he brought some seeds back to Salinas. And that’s when his most recent challenge began.
Unlike radicchio, puntarelle has not been bred for particular characteristics by generations of Italian farmers. In fact, it is a lot closer to a weed than it is to a standardized commercial vegetable. It is Gomiero’s notion that he can tame this weed.
On a recent evening, driving hard toward a field near the Gabilan Range, which marks the eastern edge of the valley, he lists the problems involved in planting puntarelle. “You have seeds that germinate at different times. You have one plant that will form the puntarelle in 60 days and another in 120. You end up keeping the ground occupied for too long, and you have to send in crews repeatedly. Economically this kind of unpredictability is a disaster.”
Because the risks are so real, Gomiero—a man who thinks in pallets but is obsessed with seeds—spends much of his time out in the fields in his radicchio-red Mercedes SUV, checking on a crop in one, on a harvesting team in another. Out here, under the open skies, speeding along the ruler-straight roads that crisscross the valley floor, one is surrounded by the very same panorama that Steinbeck described more than 50 years ago. The fog that blows in from Monterey Bay is still, as Steinbeck described it, a “gray-flannel fog.” The Salinas River, given to disappearing during the summer months, is still “a part-time river.” The force of the wind that lifts in the afternoons can still “blow away a tombstone.” But Gomiero, with one foot planted in agribusiness and his heart in the farmers market, is completely of this century. He might go home to his wife, Catarina, who dusts the kitchen table with polenta meal and hand-cuts the pasta for pasta e fagioli, but their teenage children will talk excitedly about a roller-dancing competition at a local rink. Like so many of us, he is trying to preserve tradition in the midst of modern life.
Gomiero brings his car to a stop and launches himself into the puntarelle beds with the abandon of a rock musician diving into a mosh pit. “We still have a lot of work left to do genetically,” he says, pointing out one plant that has bolted and another that has barely begun to form. Then, as if pulled by an irresistible force, he wanders deeper and deeper into the field, sizing up the best plants to provide the seeds for next year’s crop.
Will he be able to sell America on his newest dream? “This country lives on salads,” he says. “If we were growing something that could only be braised, now that would be crazy.”