This Post has an accompanying podcast episode–find out more by listening to my Food Smarts Podcast Episode 18.
When I was a kid, I loved a lesser-known Dr. Seuss book called On Beyond Zebra. The book is about the 20 letters BEYOND Z for those willing to look. I actually wrote my college essay about this book. I got in. Throughout my life, I have applied this thinking—going beyond the ordinary to see what I can find.
When you venture outside the grocery store for your food, you quickly find an awe-inspiring depth and breadth of variety that was never hinted at. Almost certainly, you were never taught about the amazing diversity of food. If you aren’t going beyond the grocery store, you will probably never know what you are missing. It’s a shame because it is a lot to miss—a lot of beauty, flavor, and nutrition. You’ve been tricked by big ag and grocery stores. We live in a world of dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator food.
And here is an essential tip: FLAVOR = NUTRITION We lost taste and we lost essential nutrients.
I used to teach K-3 kids about gardening and nutrition. One of my goals was to introduce the kids to some “weird” vegetables–either by growing them or tasting them. in my mind, if there only memory of their time with me was that food was weird, diverse, and fun, it was absolutely worth my time. At the end of the school year, we would plant half bushel basket gardens for the kids to take home. They would send me pictures over the summer. One particular plant was a favorite. We would plant Mexican Sour Gherkins (aka Mouse Melons.) These are tiny cucumbers that look just like a watermelon. Really. They are fun, easy to grow, and yummy– but you will never see them at the grocery store. I bet you didn’t know they existed.
So what can you do? Get off the beaten path. Go beyond zebra. Go beyond the grocery store. You have two choices–grow your own and/or support small regenerative farmers growing diverse crops. Below, I will direct you to some of my favorite seed companies and crops I am excited to grow in 2019. First, I want to explain why you see so little diversity in grocery stores.
Produce varieties in groceries have not been bred for flavor, nutrition, or beauty. They have been bred for uniformity, yield, transportability, and shelf life. They have even been bred to be watery. Truly. We pay by the pound and so watered down flavor and nutrition makes money. I truly think the majority of people who don’t like a vegetable (or any vegetables) have just not experienced good ones. As the Standard American Diet sinks further into the malnutrition abyss, we are offered flavorless tomatoes and broccoli with a fraction of the nutrients we are told it contains.
There is a fantastic book called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook about how tomatoes are raised in the US. I encourage you to read it and you will understand how that cheap, flavorless, uniform, and nutritionally devoid orb ends up on your plate. At the grocery, you may see 4-5 (if you are lucky) varieties of tomatoes. In the world, there are over 15,000! They come in all sizes and shapes and in every color of the rainbow. I once grew a tomato called Orange-Fleshed Purple Smudge. Tomatoes are just one example.
If you are going to venture into growing your own (and I hope you do) and are new to gardening, start by locating a good, privately owned greenhouse and start your garden from plants. (If you are local, don’t miss Hamilton’s Greenhouse out past Westpoint on 25. ) For those interested in ordering seeds, here are the seed companies I order from regularly and some of the items I will be growing in 2019:
- Baker Creek Seeds (they also sell some plants)
- Seed Savers Exchange (they also sell some plants)
- Territorial Seeds (they also sell some plants)
- Row 7 Seeds
Of course, they are more great seed companies. Here is a nice Mother Earth News article about great seed sources.
Don’t miss Episode 18 of the Food Smarts Podcast where Amie and I discuss these companies in detail. For more about Row 7 Seeds, check out the Food Talk Podcast episode featuring Dan Barber. Dan Barber is a chef, author of The Third Plate (this is our May Food Literacy Book Club selection) and co-owner of Row 7 Seeds. In this short interview, he tells the story of Row 7 and how it came to exist to solve the problem of bad supermarket produce.
Are you confused by the terms Hybrid, Heirloom, and GMO? Here is a great post from Food Renegade that parses out the very important differences. Row 7 Seeds is an example of breeders creating amazing hybrids. Baker Creek Seeds is travelling the world collecting, growing, and selling heirloom varieties before they are lost forever. GMOs are Frankenfood and should be avoided.
The way to support responsible seed breeding, protect heirloom varieties, and ensure that we have delicious and nutritious (and beautiful and miraculous and awe-inspiring ) food is to grow and eat it. 75% of food plant genetic diversity is already gone forever! Skip the grocery store and go beyond zebra whenever you can.