The vegetable plate as status symbol

Twenty years ago last fall I made my first purchase at a farmer’s market. I was on my own, in my second week of graduate school, in a new state, a new region, with an empty stomach and an empty refrigerator. On a lark I rode my bicycle, not because I was young (though I was) and environmentally conscious (I wasn’t, particularly) but because I couldn’t afford to get my car fixed, to a market for which I’d seen a sign the previous weekend.

I found myself at a stand owned by a woman with a blonde braided ponytail, middle-aged (by which I mean about the age I am now), chattering cheerfully with customers she’d clearly known for years, idly rearranging the produce to keep it attractive and accessible. Comfortable, she seemed, and welcoming, but it wasn’t she that drew me. It was, rather, the array of peppers on the table: red, orange, yellow, and green; long and short; round and squat and pointed and oblong. I had never seen anything like them. Bell peppers I knew, and jalepeños, but this mad cornucopia of capsici baffled me. I might have asked which were hot or sweet and what their flavor, but I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t have kept track of it all anyway. So I pioneered the gleeful defense of the introverted gourmet, to which I’ve repaired almost continually in the decades since. I bought some of everything, with not a clue what I was going to do with them. Continue reading “The vegetable plate as status symbol”

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. Continue reading “A diversity of gardeners”

What you can grow in Durham, 2011-12

Intrigued by Thomas Jefferson’s calendar of the Washington city market (see the previous post) and liking the design, I decided to use it as a model for mapping produce available right here, right now. So with some help from Erin Kauffman, market manager for the Durham Farmers’ Market, I compiled a produce calendar for Durham, North Carolina, 2011. Continue reading “What you can grow in Durham, 2011-12”

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. Continue reading “What you could grow (and when) in 1800”