Ark of Taste
Kentucky Limestone Bibb Lettuce
Lactuca Sativa v.Capitata Limestone Bibb
It is rare that the original common name of a vegetable so specifically indicates its ideal growing conditions, but “limestone lettuce” does just that. When grown in alkaline, limestone-derived soils, Kentucky Bibb Lettuce takes on a legendary sweetness that grew its popularity from community seed sharing to national fame in the 1960s.
This variety of butterhead lettuce was originally developed in the 1860s in Frankfort, Kentucky by a lawyer named John B. Bibb. Its reputation grew as more people tasted and loved it, and seeds were passed around the community in greater number until it became a Kentucky staple. In the 1920s, this heirloom lettuce began to achieve national recognition for its melt-in-your-mouth feel and candy-like sweetness. Even during its heyday from the 1940s-1960s when Bibb lettuce was served year-round in upscale Chicago restaurants, it retained its all-important flavor by being cultivated chiefly in alkaline Kentucky soils.
In the 1970s, Bibb lettuce’s field cultivation began to decline due to changing national tastes and strong corporate forces. This lettuce variety is a perfect teaching instrument: it exposes how large distribution, processing and sales companies in our food system can influence varietal selection and growing practices. Up until the 1970s, Bibb lettuce’s delicate leaves, flowering-rose-like-head and luscious mouth feel were its greatest virtues, but under the pressures of shipping and hours of exposure at salad bars, its field cultivation lost out to other hardier, but less flavorful and nutritious, lettuce varieties.
Then, in the 1980s, a national love affair with hydroponics revived “Kentucky Bibb’s” growth. This is where the limestone lettuce’s story gets interesting. As of 2016, hydroponic growth has sustained Kentucky Bibb’s appearance on our plates, but not our palates. Hydroponic systems still provide us with the leaves, but the nuanced flavor that catapulted Kentucky Bibb lettuce to national fame is lost when it isn’t grown in limestone soils. Therefore, in a rare distinction, this lettuce is not endangered in number, but rather in terroir. Without alkaline soils, what made this lettuce famous is lost.
But! We can revive the tradition by cultivating it in alkaline, limestone soils again. For if we were to pay attention to it, lettuce could be savored and pleasurable just like our finest Burgundian chardonnays. And in both cases: terroir is significant.