When a farmer is growing a vegetable for market in our current food system, the issues that are first on the agenda are characteristics like yield, ripening time and how long it'll survive being shipped hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the farm. Not to mention being handled several times between the field, the distributer's warehouse and its eventual destination, which can turn a gorgeous box of bell peppers into a broken, mushy mess.
And what about flavor? For a long time now, that particular aspect has slipped to the bottom—if not completely off—of the list. That's why your grandparents might pick up a red bell pepper at the store and say something like, "I used to pick these from my parents' garden and eat them whole. Wouldn't do that now—peppers these days don't taste anything like they used to."
And they'd be right.
But you can tell your grandparents there's hope for the bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and even lettuce greens the store. That's because of an Oregon State University (OSU) agricultural researcher named Lane Selman. A petite but mighty dynamo, Selman realized that there was a huge gap between what traditional plant breeders and farmers saw as successful crops—mainly disease resistance, yield and performance in the field—and what institutional buyers, cooks and chefs were looking for, which was flavor and texture.
Selman decided that the way to bring flavor back into the conversation was to bring all of these people together, so that seed and plant breeders could talk to farmers, chefs and cooks and figure out how to breed crops that would perform well for everyone. She formed the Culinary Breeding Network and began taking chefs into the field to taste vegetables and learn about how seed and plant breeders select for different traits. Plant researchers at universities who were developing new varieties of vegetables got involved, as well, along with organic farmers looking for new varieties to offer their customers.
Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds talks flavor.
Out of those conversations was born the Culinary Breeding Network's Variety Showcase, where plant breeders, seed growers, fresh market farmers, chefs, produce buyers and food journalists came together to taste existing, unreleased and new vegetable varieties and breeding lines focused on superior culinary quality. Now in its third year, the most recent showcase attracted more than 300 people who gathered to taste and rate tomatoes, peppers, carrots, squash, herbs, beets, dried beans, corn and grains like quinoa, barley and sorghum.
A jaunty Anthony Boutard with his fava bean stew.
So you could find Philomath seed breeder and national treasure for his work with organic seed, Frank Morton (whose Outredgeous lettuce was chosen to be the first plant grown on the international space station), chatting about peppers with OSU's Jim Myers, whose tomatoes were drawing a crowd with a salad of tomato juice-soaked red bulgur wheat prepared by Ned Ludd chef Jason French. Across the room was a jaunty-looking Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm sported a matching fez-and-cravat ensemble while dishing out ladles of his fava bean stew along with chef Sam Smith of Tusk's fava bean hummus.
The network's mission is now supported by the Oregon State University Department of Horticulture, the Organic Seed Alliance, and Seed Matters—an effort by the Clif Bar Family Foundation to improve the viability and availability of organic seed—as well as the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University and the OSU Small Farms Program, all groups that see the Culinary Breeding Network as part of a next step in developing a sustainable food system.
And, hopefully, it'll lead to the day you bring home a big red bell pepper that your grandparents will say tastes just like the ones they used to pick in their gardens.