Leonard Pike - Texas Sweet Onion King
by Jan Roberts-Dominguez, Onion Expert
In many ways, Dr. Leonard Pike is like a lot of other professors in this country: too busy to reach very easily by phone on most days, and totally absorbed in his research.
But this Texas A & M University faculty member has one singular distinction: he developed one of the nation's most famous sweet onions, the Texas 1015Y.
Because I was curious about the man behind this primo culinary phenomenon that graces millions of kitchens every year from mid-April through June, I gave him a call. What's it like to have created this famous onion, I pondered?
"Never did I dream that I'd be known for onions," he chuckled. "You just don't think of people being known the whole world over because they worked with a certain type of crop. I've traveled to India, Russia, Germany, France, Australia, and England. And everybody knows about the 1015."
And Dr. Pike, of course. Which shows you how much people love onions. Especially Texans. In fact, onions are the Lone Star State's leading vegetable crop. Sales reach $100 million per year, and the overall impact on the Texas economy has been estimated to be about $350 million per year.
Pike received his Ph.D. in Horticulture in 1967 from Michigan State University and came to Texas A&M to work on cucumbers and carrots. At least that's what he thought at the time.
"But the onion industry people heard that I had worked on onions," said Pike, "so they called me in one day and said, 'We've got a lot of problems with our onions, and we'd like to know if you'd be willing to work on onions.' "
Pike said he could do that, but that it would take money and time.
The onion folks said, "How much?"
Pike took a wild guess. They wrote him a check, "And that's how I got started," the plant geneticist explained.
Twenty-nine years later, the original 5-year grant they established for his research is still going strong.
The most famous sweet and juicy result of Pike's research, which was released in 1983, gets its name from its ideal planting date, October 15. Pike went this route to simplify matters during planting, he explained. "The most confusing thing to do to a bunch of growers is to release an onion and say, 'Wait a minute, you gotta plant this one on this date, and this one on this date, and this one on this date.' because you know that's just asking too much."
Among all of the onion varieties released that year, the 1015 stood out because of its superior qualities. Aside from its technical pluses, such as disease resistance, it had a great onion flavor, but, as Pike stated, "wouldn't cause tears to run and drip off your cheek."
However, growers and shippers felt that it needed a catchier name. A committee was formed, a "Name The Onion" contest held, and the 1015 suddenly had a new name. "It was something like the Texas SuperSweet," said Pike.
But the next year, when the crop was coming to market, the growers started asking the onion buyers how many of the Texas SuperSweets they could sell. "None," said the buyers. "We want the 1015."
The industry learned a valuable lesson that year and nobody has fiddled with the name again. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
© 1999 Jan Roberts-Dominguez
To order Texas 1015 SuperSweets
(end of April to the middle of May), contact:
116 South Ware St.
McAllen, TX 78501