Bibb Lettuce

It is interesting to note the confusion between Judge George M. Bibb (October 30, 1776 – April 14, 1859) and his brother Lt. John B. Bibb (October 27, 1789 – April 13, 1884), as the originator(s). Also, the story of Bibb jealously guarding his lettuce is perhaps an allusion to Genenwein's loss of his monopoly.

Bibb Burnley House, Frankfort, KY Historical plaque in front

USDA Yearbook, 1894.

p. 186Butterhead lettuce, including the Big Boston and Bibb varieties, has a smaller head than Iceberg. It is slightly flat on top and has soft, tender, pale inner leaves that are oily or buttery to the feel.

p. 187 — The small leaves of Bibb lettuce are a salad by themselves with a french or a russian dressing.


The Green Bag, 12: 348-350 (1900)

George M. Bibb

In his private life Judge Bibb was typical of the 18th century gentleman of culture. He never adopted the modern style of dress but to the last clung to knee breeches, silk stockings and slippers with large silver buckles as the costume befitting a gentleman. The accompanying photograph made from a portrait by Jouett, now in the possession of his granddaughter Miss Patty A. Burnley at Frankfort, Ky., shows the type of man that he was.

Judge Bibb was a representative of the "Old School" not simply in his dress but in his tastes as well. He was an expert fisherman and his gardens were a source of great pride to him. The famous "Bibb Lettuce" was originated by him and he was as punctilious as Washington himself about all the affairs of his domestic life.

He was twice married and sixteen children were born to him of the two marriages.


Valley Morning Star, Dec. 20, 1936, p. 11

This year Mr. Genenwein is growing Bibb lettuce, a variety once grown exclusively by him and his sons who still operate the Louisville plant of the firm. This Bibb Lettuce is something new to us and most likely to you also, as its production is limited. Mr. Genenwein has contracted with a large up-state hotel for his entire production at $6.00 per bushel. He stated that when he first introduced this lettuce into the United States, he received $25.00 per bushel for it, but somebody stole some of his seed and his monopoly was broken. This lettuce has four times the amount of opium content that other lettuce has and is therefore much sought after by people with nervous disorders, stated Mr. Genenwein. In the north they sell their output to hospitals and sanitariums almost exclusively. Our personal reaction to this lettuce after sampling it, is that it is of extraordinary quality—and we don’t much care for rabbit food at that.


Esquire, 18: 113 (1942)
Man the Kitchenette
Iles Brody

Miss Mary Humphrey, the beauteous daughter of the hostess, told me the story of the salad which looked like lettuce, though the leaves were smaller, rounder, crisper, and had an oily quality.

This unusual salad, said Miss Humphrey, is called Bibb's salad. And there are different versions as to how it came to be known under this name, how it came into existence, and how and why it settled in the South. The story goes that a Mr. Bibb who had spent a very pleasant week at a hospitable Southern home, said to the hostess at the end of his sojourn: "I'd like very much to repay you, but I have nothing to give you, except these seeds of salad. Plant them. You'll like it." They did, and Bibb's lettuce turned out to be so superior that it soon became famous.

It is really good, the offspring of common lettuce and an African variety. Rather small, it grows like a cabbage rose, has natural moisture, and a beautiful color. The epicurean way to serve it is to take the rosettes and use French dressing on it. Having an oily quality, it needs less oil in the dressing than other salads, an important consideration today, with oil (and particularly olive oil) so precious.

In concluding this subject I must tell you another one of the Bibb's stories. This goes that a Mr. (in some stories it is Colonel or Dr.) Bibb who developed a fine new salad was guarding the crop, shotgun in hand, day and night. No one but the owner tasted the salad and everyone in the countryside was most curious. Two slippery colored boys made up their minds to steal some of it, recommending their erring souls to the Lord in advance. They were helped by Him in their efforts to spread the good salad and let mankind benefit by the great discovery: old Bibb fell asleep in the middle of his salad plantation, gun in hand, and awoke only when the two boys, running for their lives, were already in the gardens of Paris. (Ky., pop. 6,200).


Nature Magazine, 37: 91 (1944)

You will hear a lot in lettuce circles about Bibb lettuce. Just in case you do not know Bibb, it comes from Kentucky where it was named for a Colonel Bibb about a century ago. It has recently been rediscovered by the lettuce lovers, who proclaim it as being a small-heading variety with a flavor that is definitely distinct. Some gardeners, however, report a little difficulty in making Bibb head up. Nevertheless, it behaves beautifully indoors, as well as in Florida and certain other sections of the country, but may need further testing in the North.


Bulletin of the Garden Club of America p. 20 (1944)

Lettuce is definitely a cool weather plant, perhaps that is why in the chilly mountain spring of Western North Carolina it does so well. Bibb lettuce has always been a particular favorite. Sown the middle of February in cold frames, it has a long season lasting well into June from a second sowing in April, even if the summer heat be considerable. It is a small, deliciously flavored, very green lettuce, particularly desirable, too, grown as a winter lettuce. If planted in early August in cold frames, it will make sturdy plants by mid October, providing a welcome supply of tempting greens all through the cold months.


Kentucky Bluegrass Country (1992)
edited by R. Gerald Alvey

Bibb Lettuce Kentucky Limestone Bibb, described in superlative terms by Central Kentucky writers, is purported to be the "finest lettuce in the world," the "Orchid of the Salad World." Jack Clowes says:

People who have never encountered Kentucky Bibb lettuce have a joy to live for. It's a beautiful plant with crisp, deep-green leaves that cluster like rose petals only not as dense. Its texture and its flavor are utterly delightful . . . . You don't have to have cultivated taste buds to enjoy Bibb.

Bibb lettuce was first developed and gown by Judge John ("Jack") B. Bibb, a native Virginian who settled in Frankfort in 1845. Judge Bibb never patented or protected or even named his lettuce; he only grew it, providing friends and neighbors with seeds, and evidently ate it, for he lived to the ripe old age of ninety-five. The lettuce was not grown commercially until the early 1920s, when the owner of a Louisville greenhouse, William Genenwein, rather circuitously obtained a pinch of the seed for his business. As the story goes, Genenwein's friend, the horse trainer for a wealthy Jefferson County industrialist, upon whose estate the lettuce was grown, enticed the estate gardener with a bottle of prime whiskey and received in return some seed, which he then passed on to Genenwein. Genenwein refused to sell any of the seed, and the lettuce remained a profitable family monopoly as long as it was grown in his greenhouses. After about seven years, however, Genenwein decided to increase production by growing an additional crop outdoors, and the inevitable happened: someone crept onto the property and carried off some Bibb seedlings. Genenwein's monopoly was ended.

Kentucky Bibb is best complemented by homemade salad dressing. One recipe suggests to forget the olive oil and substitute your own warm bacon grease; another, a favorite recipe for seven generations of the Scott family of Frankfort, calls for "real maple syrup," "real olive oil," "malt vinegar" and spices.

The elegance of Bibb lettuce is matched by only one other vegetable that flourishes in the Bluegrass soil—asparagus. Both Bibb lettuce and asparagus are considered Derby specialties, since both are in season in May, but they also appear frequently on traditional Bluegrass menus. Some menus devised by the racing elite combine Bluegrass delicacies so that the meal becomes a virtual mirror of the Region's traditional cuisine.


The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Business of Bibb
(2001)
By Chuck Martin