Why you should be totally, absolutely, flat-out amped about seeds.
Cassandra Landry | 1.21.2015 | Issue #9
When some starry-eyed reporter or diner asks, it’s basic etiquette to say that you build your menu around whatever the local farmers have to offer, and then supplement—regretfully!—what you can’t get, elsewhere. The chef serves the farmer, not the other way around. Which rocks as a guiding principle, but a crucial sector of the population has been left out of the farm-to-table model soundbite, probably because they’re one step before the farm. Widen the lens a bit, and you’ve got a ready-made holy-shit moment.
Why you should care about seeds is the easy part: if you entered kitchen life with even a minor love of food, you’re a crazed bloodhound of a human who will seek out flavor to the ends of the earth. Seeds, and the people cultivating them, are what’s driving that flavor. Ipso facto, seeds are what should be keeping you up at night. The possibilities within seed science are so appealing they almost feel like cheating, but therein lies the beauty of our modern food system: the breeders currently making waves in their consideration of flavor also happen to be the same ones concerned with climate change and building better plants. The crucial bit comes when you close the loop between breeders and chefs—farmers holding steady in the middle—so that the arbiters of taste in this world are directly in communication with those building the physical product.
The Culinary Breeding Network, a program spurred into existence by the researchers at Oregon State University, is leading the charge in closing that loop. Lane Selman, a self-described “gregarious people-person,” is the chick on the white horse, leading the troops of shy, focused scientists into the fray. Selman was raised on agriculture, lives in Portland where “every other person is a chef,” and as someone who’s been in the trenches of this issue for ten years, is hell-bent on bringing these three groups face-to-face. The CBN, her brainchild, was designed to do just that.
“I see things that they don’t see,” she says of the close-knit breeding community. “I know so many people and I see so many connections that need to be made, and this is how I can do it.”
Selman works closely with Frank Morton, the man famous for rejuvenating lettuce as we know it, and Jim Myers, a fellow OSU breeder with a magnificent Tom Selleck ‘stache and a penchant for purple tomatoes. When Morton was tinkering with growing a mild habanero variety, he arrived at the usual fork in the road: once all the unsatisfactory specimens have been eliminated, and the flavor is right, what determines the next choices?
“These breeders are usually making all these decisions alone. Should these habaneros be orange, should they be red, or yellow? What about the shape? Size? There were nine different phenotypes of how the pepper could look,” she explains. “Collectively, we can be making these decisions. We can pile 25 chefs and farmers and wholesalers in a van, people who are going to tell the whole story, and show them.”
Why should a chef care? Because if you want something specific, like rounded shoulders on a pepper because it’s a lot easier to crank out in a kitchen, or a pineapple note instead of orange in a habanero, or if you want a certain spectrum of color on your plate, all of that is now up for discussion. All of this gets very meta, very quickly. What would you do if everything in your kitchen was the best in show, which you knew for sure it was because you had helped breed it to be? How would it change your approach? A tomato does not just have to be a tomato. A tomato, even the ultimate height-of-summer-wonky-eat-it-like-an-apple tomato can be improved. We only think that’s as good as it gets because we’ve never dared believe that nature doesn’t always churn out perfection on its own.
“Now, chefs understand who the real rockstars are. What comes out of these people getting together and talking to one another is absolutely outrageous,” Selman says, giddy with enthusiasm. “All kinds of things come to life for the breeders that they don’t even think about. All the knowledge is there. Having the chefs involved has taken it to the next level.”
In 2013, culinary supernova Dan Barber (have ya heard of him? Probably not) put on a now-famous conference at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Westchester, New York, and aptly christened it Seeds: The Future of Flavor. People talk about this thing like they talk about Woodstock. Minds melting, jam sessions, larger-than-life personalities, the defining moment of a generation, man. Selman describes it as hilarious. “Most of these chefs didn’t speak English, they were getting all fired up, and the translators are trying to keep up with them. As soon as this information was presented, they were freaking out,” she says. “They had no idea how much they’d been compromising. They had no idea that all these different things were actually a possibility. To come up with a design protocol for a carrot, or a pepper, or a beet...a chef’s initial reaction to that is always total excitement.”
Matthew Dillon—formerly of the Organic Seed Alliance and now at the helm of Seed Matters (an offshoot of Clif Bar & Company), both significant heavyweights in the push for awareness—was at a table with Morton and Manresa chef David Kinch. “Just to watch Kinch throughout the day...and this a guy who spends a lot of time out the in garden. He’s not one of those chefs who pretends like he’s farm-to-table. Even he was like, holy shit,” he says. “His mind was getting warped from the potential he was seeing.”
For most, the compromising actually arises from supporting buzzy heirlooms, which is right up there with our obsession with Heritage and Culture and Tradition. Seeds, and the saving of them in particular, are pitched as a portal to years gone by, when things were better and we all ate fresh vegetables and bathed in creeks and milled our own grain. “There’s always this kind of attitude toward heirlooms and their flavors and colors, and people act like they were handed down by the gods of Olympus to their grandparents,” Dillon says. “When people have that look of shock, I’m always like, where did you think all this diversity came from? We humans selected it. Nature, God, the Earth, whatever you want to call it, gave us weeds that were barely edible. The relative of the tomato was disgusting!”
But at the same time, he points out, we all had that moment when we were kids, looking at broccoli and wondering how such a thing could just sit there, existing. “We didn’t want to eat it, so we spent a lot of time looking at it, and being like, what the fuck, where did this shit come from?? Who came up with this?”
Selman says they like to refer to the work they’re doing as the “heirlooms of tomorrow,” partly to please the whole contingent of eaters who love the idea of preserving the past, but also in part because the ancestors who were keeping diversity going by saving seeds cared deeply about flavor. The breeders of this next generation are not just of the same mind, they’re solving the problems our well-intentioned ancestors couldn’t. “We have to get rid of this myth that old is good, and new is bad. This whole group of breeders who are breeding for flavor and for organic is a marriage of the two,” she says.
But what happens once our minds have been blown? When we are well and truly drunk on seed Kool-Aid, how do we make like Sean Brock and reclaim our homeland?
“It’s so new,” Dillon says. “There’s been a lot of media in the last year and a half on plant breeding in the culinary world, but it’s just so new, this concept of building a menu from the seed up.”
It’s why Dillon and Selman are partnering to bring the concept of seed-farm-table dinners into the conversation, to show how feasible seed support can be in a composed way. For the everyday chef though, the one just trying to make it and put out something unique and delicious and popular, without the luxury of a built-in farm or monetary wiggle room, Dillon says he’s not sure there’s an easy action plan quite yet. “When people think about seed, they think heirlooms good, Monsanto bad. That’s where it stops and starts,” he says. “Raising that awareness to the general public is important, but right now, the biggest thing chefs can do is learn. To really learn, and apply their own creativity as to how they can best influence the future of seed, and understand how much varietal diversity is out there.”
The most immediate option for involvement comes in the form of variety trials, the kind that Selman envisioned chefs taking part in. They’re usually regional, and conducted by either land grant universities programs like OSU or private seed companies. Chefs are exposed to the challenges farmers are facing, and are faced with a receptive forum for their feedback to the seed companies and the plant breeders, whether it’s about flavor or color, or even efficiency in the kitchen. Dillon hesitates before he admits that seed awareness, while catching, may not reach the saturated heights of the farm-to-table movement. Which, while we’re on the subject, is absolutely still in its infancy.
“The farm-to-table thing gets used and abused, but let’s be honest, there’s so much value there. Just because it’s become an easy target doesn’t mean that it has fully succeeded, because not enough consumers are really thinking about the farm. And if they are, they’re thinking about it in a really superficial way,” he says. “There are several obstacles to seed being a major part of people’s decision-making, one of which is this genetic literacy, where people just get overwhelmed and freaked out. It is also hard to touch it, and be an influencer on it in a direct way.”
The slowness of it, he adds, is as much a deterrent as an attribute. Even for those who are invested in the future of seed, requiring anywhere from a few years to a decade for one genetic strain is a hard sell. Tons of people put their beloved backyard chickens on the adoption circuit after one season, for fuck’s sake.
“It’s slow gratification, and we’re not a slow gratification society. It’s one of the reasons that seed is hard for people to grasp. Even for funders, they want to see immediate results...it’s hard for people to get their heads around something that slow. But, I think it’s really psychically important for us to be connected to something that slow, on a primal, human level.”
Selman and Dillon, along with all the rest of the breeding community, are ready for the slow. As scientists, they're not bothered by it, something chefs—who love visible progress and results and competition—will need to adopt to support them. Slow does not mean failure in this world, it means invested time.
“It’s not surprising at all that we’re having to relearn so much. Look at the renaissance of learning how to preserve food. Look at the renaissance of how to prepare food. Shit, we forgot basic, simple cooking. So, a renaissance in understanding plant biology or agriculture, it’s a process, but we’re returning to it,” he says. “But chefs are naturally curious kids, inside, and they’re going to be inclined to keep pursuing this.”