"What's this?" the grocery cashier asked me, holding a tan melon at eye level. "I don't know how much to charge you, because I don't know what to call this."
"That," I answered, trying to hide my surprise, "is called a cantaloupe."
Taking my groceries to the car, I shrugged the whole thing off as a fluke. It's theoretically possible, I thought, stowing the last bag on the back seat, that a boy could pass the first 16 years of his life without cantaloupe consciousness.
A scant two weeks later, however, a subsequent trip to the supermarket brought an even deeper shock. I was once again at the register, waiting for a price check on paper towels, when I heard the scanner at the neighboring checkout come to a sudden halt.
"What do you call these?" asked the cashier, a young woman in high school.
"Honey," said the woman at the counter, shaking her head, "those are strawberries. Haven't you ever eaten a fresh strawberry?"
The cashier answered no, smiling without alarm.
The customer bolted from line and dashed to the produce section, returning with two more pints of berries.
"I'm buying these for you, dear," she told the cashier. "I don't want you to go through life without tasting a fresh strawberry."
I had excused the cantaloupe cluelessness as an aberration, but the strawberry-challenged teen suggested an ominous trend. I couldn't wait to tell my mother and sisters, who routinely gather at the Sunday dinner table and, like a Greek chorus, predict the End of Civilization As We Know It.
But my breathless revelations didn't even raise an eyebrow. "That's nothing," my mother responded. "I got a cashier once who had never heard of celery."
"I had to tell a cashier what cauliflower was," one of my sisters chimed in. "And don't get me started on cabbage."
Clearly, when youngsters can't tell an onion from arugula, what we are witnessing is a growing national scandal of produce illiteracy. Little wonder: my 7-year-old daughter and her peers get their required allotment of vitamin C from something called a fruit roll, a product in which such things as oranges are mashed to a pulp and pressed into a sheet of goo that looks like a highway reflector.
So I have a proposal. Let us embark upon a massive federal education program. We could call it No Chive Left Behind.
Let us commit that by the year 2010, we will have a cucumber in every classroom.
Let us daily drill our children with horticultural flashcards, so that they can distinguish, in the blink of an eye, between a Burgess buttercup squash and a Royal Chantenay carrot, between Clemson Spineless okra and Bambino eggplant, between the Cherry Belle radish and the Walla Walla onion.
Let us sponsor fifth-grade essay contests that celebrate the bounty of our fields, asking our next generation to ponder, in 500 words or less, "The Cayenne Red: Pepper Pretender or Farmer's Friend?"
Let us start even earlier, retooling our kindergarten aquariums for potato production through a cheerful new curriculum, "Hooked on Hydroponics."
Without such an effort, the implications could be grimmer than the launching of Sputnik: while our next crop of Americans struggles to distinguish a green bean from a spaghetti squash, the Japanese plunge ahead with startling advances in the Fuji apple, and rumors abound of German ambitions to build a Master Zucchini. If we act now, our nation can once again become produce-savvy, securing its future as the apple of the world's eye.
And if you don't know what an apple is, I don't want to hear about it.