Seed to Kitchen Collaborative: Preserving Diversity, Delivering on Flavor

Feature Stories Spring 2017 Issue

Seed to Kitchen Collaborative: Preserving Diversity, Delivering on Flavor

By Kitt Healy | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

In the kitchen at Madison’s Pig in a Fur Coat, Chef Dan Bonanno hands me a spoonful of golden roasted winter squash. “Try this,” he says eagerly, as if sharing a great discovery. “Tell me what it tastes like.”

The first thing I notice is what the squash doesn’t taste like. It doesn’t taste like butter or salt or maple syrup or anything else normally used to prepare squash. The rich, nutty, sweet flavor and flaky texture come from the roasted vegetable alone. It’s far more delicious than I imagined a great lumpy blue-grey gourd could be. The flavor is reminiscent of something I can’t quite identify. “Hazelnut?” I guess. “Chestnut,” Dan corrects, smiling. “It tastes exactly like a chestnut.” He writes as much on a well-used flavor evaluation form, followed by four exclamation points.

Like so many of the vegetables in Madison’s restaurant kitchens, this squash was grown on a local, organic farm. In this case, the farm is also an agricultural research station operated by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, scientists grow acres of organic vegetables to understand how certain varieties interact with the environment to influence qualities like plant physiology, disease tolerance, yield and, of course, flavor. Unlike yield and disease tolerance, however, flavor is difficult to measure, requiring finely tuned instruments not only capable of describing a flavor but of identifying it as “pleasing” or not. Luckily, UW-Madison researchers have a set of such instruments at their disposal: the talented chefs of the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative, ready and willing to lend their experienced palates to developing better vegetables for Wisconsin’s organic farmers.

Five Madison chefs, 50 Wisconsin farmers and gardeners, and a rotating cast of plant breeders from around the country make up the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative (SKC), a project of the UW-Madison Department of Horticulture. 2017 marks the fourth year of the project, which began when plant breeders Julie Dawson and Irwin Goldman met Chef Tory Miller at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York. Having heard Chef Dan Barber speak about the potential for plant breeders and chefs to co-create more flavorful, nutritionally dense food crops, Dawson, Goldman and Miller decided Madison was ripe for such a partnership.

Since 2014, the SKC chefs have met monthly from June through January to taste and evaluate new and exciting vegetable varieties from plant breeders across the country. Sometimes, as with the chestnut-flavored squash (a variety called Stella Blue from Siskiyou Seeds), they strike gold. When local farmers learn about what chefs like, they can grow that variety the following season—turning that gold into fuel for the local food economy.

When we think of issues facing agriculture, the flavor of squash is not often at the top of the list. The persistently unhealthy American diet, the environmental impact of agriculture, corporate control of plant genetic resources—these are big problems facing our food system. Can breeding tastier vegetables for organic farms address any of these predicaments? Actually, yes.

Squash that tastes like chestnuts, or beets that don’t taste like dirt, or delightfully mild habanero peppers not only interest elite chefs but entice eaters to give vegetables a chance. A mind-blowing tomato may not be enough to convert your average “meat n’ potatoes” Wisconsinite into a health nut, but it’s got a much better shot than a grocery store tomato with the texture and flavor of cardboard. The popularity of farmers markets, CSAs and food co-ops are encouraging more people to try healthy, whole foods again. Making sure shoppers’ “gateway” veggies are as delicious and nutritious as possible could help keep more people on the right track.

One way to address negative environmental impacts of agriculture is to support local, organic farmers who don’t use chemicals on their land. For most of us, this means shopping at the farmers market or joining a CSA, but for plant breeders it means developing crops hearty enough to withstand the environmental challenges of organic farming, such as persistent weeds and disease, which thrive in a natural environment.

It also means developing crops that entice customers of all kinds to pay top dollar for organic farmers’ beautiful—and hard-won—fruits, roots and leaves. In a recent national survey, researchers from the SKC found that diversified organic farmers (many of whom sell direct to consumers) rate flavor as the most important trait they consider in deciding which vegetable varieties to grow, knowing that if a customer doesn’t like something, it doesn’t matter if that plant survives the frost, resists disease, or shoots rainbow lasers out of its petioles.

By breeding for organic farms and focusing on flavor, plant breeders also take a political stand against corporate control of the seed system. Currently, three companies control the majority of the global seed supply, using their legal and financial power to criminalize seed saving and stem the ancient work of co-evolution between people and plants. The more varieties of crops developed in the public domain (outside corporate control), the more diversity can be restored to the food system. By supporting small-scale seed companies, plant breeders and organic farmers, the SKC erodes, however imperceptibly, the homogenizing forces of corporate control. Though it is tiny, the cup of seeds that comes out of a Stella Blue squash (bred by a farmer and distributed by a small seed company) is one cup of genetic diversity that Monsanto will (likely) never get.

The best part of the SKC, according to co-founder Chef Tory Miller, is “getting to see the art of plant breeding at work and learning about new, novel varieties before breeders bring them to market.” The SKC chefs’ enthusiasm for interesting vegetable varieties generates economic momentum behind unique and diverse seeds that ripples throughout the food system. The chefs occasionally follow their curiosity out to the field, where they walk the rows of ripening produce with farmers, learning about which trial varieties the farmers like best, which they could do without, and why.

At the end of every summer, the SKC hosts a public event called the “Farm to Flavor Dinner,” which showcases outstanding varieties from the season’s trials and educates attendees about the roles plant breeding and seed saving play in a vibrant local food economy. At the event, the SKC chefs share specialty dishes highlighting their favorite varieties: a new kind of russet potato turned into french fries, creamy caramel made from low-geosmin* beets, miso made from an unusually savory Chilean corn. Speakers tell stories of heirloom beans passed down through two hundred years of the same family, or of a spineless zucchini bred specifically for organic production and newly released on the market. Farmers answer questions about how the varieties grow, when to plant and how to harvest.

By the end of the night, everyone present recognizes that every variety of fruit or vegetable has a lineage of patient, dedicated people who have guided its evolution. From breeder, to farmer, to chef, to the eater savoring a bit of squash ravioli that tastes just like a chestnut, the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative brings people together in deep appreciation of the plants that make life both pleasurable and possible.

*Geosmin is an organic compound that is responsible for the earthy flavor and aroma of beets.

Kitt Healy is a writer and keeper of seed stories based in Madison. She is also the associate outreach specialist for Urban and Regional Food Systems at University of Wisconsin–Madison, and coordinates the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative.

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