I have been growing my own varieties of fruits and vegetables for years. They taste marvelous to me. Before saving seeds, I taste the crops to make sure that they taste good to me. I didn't start out to intentionally breed for great tasting vegetables, it happened mostly by chance as tastes, textures, smells, and colors that I find most pleasing have come to predominate in my varieties.
This afternoon, I had the pleasure of attending an open house at the home of a man that has been my friend since childhood. There was a beautiful spread of vegetables that looked glorious, but tasted nothing like the vegetables from my garden. The experience triggered the train of thought that lead to writing this blog.
Last fall, I was invited to the capitol, for a week, where I was wined and dined on the finest food that industrialized agriculture has to offer. On more than a few occasions, I put a forkful of food into my mouth that I thought I recognized, but the taste or texture was so off-putting, that I spit it out for fear that I had inadvertently put a non-food item into my mouth.
As an example, there was a dish of small thin snap beans that looked so young and tender that on my farm, I would have expected them to melt in my mouth. At the restaurant, they had the consistency of a bean stem. In a blind taste test, I would have considered them too fibrous to be edible. I was served fruits that looked like tomatoes or strawberries, but the texture and taste was more akin to eating Styrofoam packing peanuts with a bit of added food coloring.
I've heard some of my patrons use the term “cardboard tomatoes” to disparage tomatoes that are trucked in from far away. I had the opportunity to taste some of them. I have included a photo of an industrialized cantaloupe (above). I sure wouldn't want to eat that!
The experience last fall helped me to realize that I have been localizing the taste of my food to my own body and my own community. When I plant genetically diverse crops, and allow them to promiscuously pollinate, they are creating lots of variation in taste, texture, color, and odor. When I save seeds from specific plants that taste best to me, I am moving the population in the direction of what tastes best to me.
I view myself as a thoroughly average human primate. So I think that when I select for varieties that taste great to me, I am tending to select for crops that taste great to my community. That is, borne out at the farmer's market, where some of my varieties have developed a following. People that look forward every year to my muskmelons, sweet corn, squash, or tomatoes. Sure, I might lose 20% of my fruit crops to bruising before I can get them to the farmer's market. But what survives is a joy to the mouth, nose, and eyes.
I have included a photo comparing a high carotene version of my sweet corn with normal sweet corn (above). Mmm. Mmm. Mmm.
When I first started growing melons, I called them cantaloupes, because that's what the seed packets called them. Over the years, as I saved the melons that tasted best to me, they started to become sweeter and sweeter, and they got smelly. Not just a little smelly, they became odoriferous, and fragrant. I can't put a basket of them in the cab of the truck with me unless I roll down the window, and even that is pushing it.
The smell from a single melon on the dinner table is glorious. A couple baskets in a closed up truck creates an overwhelming odor. Therefore, these days I call them muskmelons, because their musky smell is one of their defining characteristics.
Another melon trait has developed to please my taste buds. My muskmelons are deep orange due to high carotenes. I love the taste of carotenes in my food. So as I have been selecting for great taste, I have also been inadvertently selecting for higher carotene content and more brilliant color. I have noticed a similar trend in other crops such as squash, and sweet corn.
It seems to me that as I select for great taste, I am also selecting for more nutritious crops with higher levels of vitamins, anti-oxidants, and phytonutrients which are often brightly colored. My fruits and vegetables look great, and they taste great. I'm coming to believe that our bodies are not simple black boxes that take in any purported food and give any output. The more involved I become in saving seeds for better tasting food, the more I am convinced that foods taste better to our bodies when they have more of the nutrients that a body needs.
I've included a photo of my butternut squash. My, how orange!
When I plant genetically diverse crops, and allow them to promiscuously pollinate, they are creating lots of variation in taste, texture, color, and odor. When I save seeds from specific plants that taste best to me, I am moving the population in the direction of what tastes best to me and to my community. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.
Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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