Last Monday night event space at Chris King Precision Components in Portland hosted a unique collection of plant breeders, media folk, chefs (feeders!) and eaters for the Culinary Breeding Network Variety Showcase. The Culinary Breeding Network is “comprised of plant breeders, seed growers, fresh market farmers, chefs and produce buyers engaged in developing and identifying varieties and traits of culinary excellence for vegetable crops in the Pacific Northwest.” The mission is “to bridge the gap between breeders and eaters to improve agricultural and culinary quality.”
Yes, plant breeders: farmers, seed growers and academics, none of whom work in laboratories, use biotechnology or genetic modification. These are traditional plant breeders that are out in the field, growing fruits and vegetables, observing their physical traits, how they grow, resist disease and store and selecting for those favorable characteristics over time. Another thing these breeders are considering: taste and culinary quality. Because what good is a nice looking tomato if it tastes terrible?
Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network organized this Variety Showcase to help the plant breeders evaluate the fruits of their labor by creating conversation with and gaining feedback from chefs and consumers. Tables around the room were covered with a dizzying selection of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, peppers, corn, cilantro, basil and celery. Each breeder was paired up with a chef who cooked a dish to showcase one of the highlighted varieties. Raw samples of each variety were also on display to look at, smell, touch and taste.
“We’re trying to build a food system that we want, one that works for a community. We have to take responsibility and bring biodiversity back” – Andrew Still, Adaptive Seeds
After hearing from Lane Selman, Frank Morton (Wild Garden Seeds) and Andrew Still (Adaptive Seeds) about the Culinary Breeding Network and the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) and the origins and goals of each, everyone was set loose to mingle and explore the room. Eating participants were given a set of questionnaires to comment on various aspects of each sample: which mild habanero had the best heat? Which onion had the best raw flavor? The best cooked flavor? Which cherry tomato had the most favorable skin thickness? Which lemon basil would you be most likely to use and how? This feedback was meant to help the breeders continue to select for the most desirable culinary characteristics of these plants.
I’ll have to admit, walking up to a table of 8 different kinds of cilantro to sample each of their leaves, stem, root and seed was a bit daunting, to say the least. And tasting through 15 different kinds of tomatoes in a row was somewhat tiring for the tastebuds. But to compare their characteristics and flavors all side by side was mindblowing.
It’s eye-opening and admirable that this type of work is being done. There are plant breeders in fields across the country selecting the most productive, best tasting vegetables possible, in an entirely natural way. And people like Lane Selman who are working hard to get funding and recognition to those people.
One can only imagine that if more consumers were given the opportunity to experience a tasting like the Variety Showcase that people would have a greater appreciation for the agriculture of this country.
The following Plant Breeders were present at the Culinary Breeding Network Variety Showcase:
Irwin Goldman (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Frank Morton (Wild Garden Seed, Philomath, OR)
Michael Mazourek (Cornell University)
Jim Myers (Oregon State University)
Anthony & Carol Boutard (Ayers Creek Farm, Gaston, OR)
Organic Seed Alliance
The following chefs prepared dishes for the Culinary Breeding Network Variety Showcase:
Jason French, Ned Ludd
Joshua McFadden, Ava Genes
Greg Higgins, Higgins Restaurant
Earl Ninsom, Paadee/Langbaan
Andrew Mace & Nora Antene, Le Pigeon
Ben Schade, Old Salt Marketplace
Paul Losch, Ruddick/Wood
Scott Snyder, Levant
Chris DiMinno, Chris King
Timothy Wastell, Firehouse Restaurant