A diversity of gardeners

An article in last month’s National Geographic examines the loss of genetic diversity in the world’s crops, and this infographic, in particular, has been making the rounds of the Internet, at least in the corners where foodies and activists lurk. It shows the decline in diversity of common American garden vegetables between 1903 and 1983: more than 90 pecent of the varieties in existence at the turn of the twentieth century are now long gone. That loss of diversity has consequences beyond our inability to sample the flavor of a long-lost apple: with so little genetic stock available, changes in climate or a new disease might easily wipe out an entire crop, such as wheat, and we’d have no way to rebuild it.

It’s a lovely graphic, well designed and (if you aren’t already familiar with the issue) appropriately shocking. Like too many such graphics, though, this one doesn’t inspire much beyond despair. What can I, or anybody, do about it? The accompanying article gives the answer: I don’t have to do anything, because there are institutional “seed banks” working to preserve the genetic stock still remaining on the world’s farms. I’ve been shocked and then duly comforted; no need to get out of my reading chair. Let the experts handle it.

Except that this isn’t the right answer, or at least isn’t enough of one. Seed banks, valuable and worthwhile as they are, can only preserve the remaining — let’s say, as a round number — ten percent of the genetic diversity that once existed. But that ten percent is dangerously little. And institutions and experts can’t rebuild the remaining ninety percent, because they didn’t build it in the first place.

Why plastic chicken is not the answer

Mark Bittman writes in this Sunday’s New York Times (“Finally, Fake Chicken Worth Eating”) that he has decided, at last, to endorse fake meat, because he believes that Americans ought to eat less meat and because certain new soy- and mushroom-based fake meat products are, in certain circumstances, nearly indistinguishable from industrially produced chicken breast.

On its own, Brown’s “chicken” — produced to mimic boneless, skinless breast — looks like a decent imitation, and the way it shreds is amazing. It doesn’t taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesn’t taste like much anyway, that’s hardly a problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them. When you take Brown’s product, cut it up and combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you won’t know the difference between that and chicken.

Bittman’s uncritical acceptance of the way Americans consume chicken breast, moreover — which is to say, mechanically — is disappointing from a man who has done as much as anyone to teach Americans how to cook and eat real food in simple, practical ways. There’s no indication that the product tastes good, only that it isn’t terrible. Nor does it promoting it in this fashion aid the cause of good cooking or of thoughtful, intelligent consumption. To embrace the consumption of “meatlike stuff” produced by a “thingamajiggy” is, I believe, to embrace the error at the root of modern industrial agriculture, and therefore, in the long run, to worsen its effects.

What you could grow (and when) in 1800

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many interests, and being President of the United States doesn’t seem to have deterred him from pursuing them. If from the White House he couldn’t putter in his beloved garden at Monticello, he still managed to keep up with the business. During his eight years in Washington, he kept track in his journal of the produce available month by month at the city market and drew up a chart showing each item’s earliest and latest availability during his residence — a fascinating, if a bit foggy and bubbly, window into early American gardening and vegetable consumption.

Because I’ll not be out-geeked by a two-centuries-dead president, I’ve made an HTML version of Jefferson’s chart. His handwritten original was quite clever (you can see it at low resolution on the Monticello website) and I’ve preserved the basic design while adding a bit of interactivity: for now just the ability to mouse over headings to highlight rows and columns, but eventually also to view definitions and commentary on various items of produce.

What’s a chicken worth?

Occasionally I see arguments to the effect that eating red meat is dangerously damaging to the environment — red meat specifically, as compared to poultry. For example, that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, but only 800 gallons to produce a pound of chicken. (“Only” is relative here.) Or that 27 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every pound of beef consumed, but only 7 pounds of CO2 per pound of chicken. The figures vary so wildly that I won’t bother citing sources: I assume these numbers are inaccurate; I offer them only as examples of the argument being made, which is that eating chicken is more “environmentally responsible” than eating beef.

I wrote recently about my objection to this sort of bean-counting, this reduction of lives and complex realities to mere data. Here’s another example of what I meant: linking pounds of meat with pounds of CO2 or gallons of water ignores the fact that those pounds of meat come from once-living creatures, which somebody has to kill.

More tender morsels

The matter of grass-fed beef and dental hygeine has me thinking some more about the connection between cuisine and agriculture, or between what we might think of as personal or cultural preference and the on-the-ground facts of how food is raised.

A couple of weeks ago Melissa Clark had a recipe in the New York Times for boneless chicken breasts — essentially chicken cordon bleu with sauerkraut, which cries out to my Alsatian-Rheinischer soul, but equally interesting to me was her hand-wringing about white meat.