A handful of grain. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

A handful of grain. Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

I got so carried away with my enthusiasm for Omar’s I didn’t get to the rest of my NYC post, which needs to emphasize an important event, orchestrated by Ferran Adrià, that took place in Manhattan and at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

(A number of people asked what show my Mom took me to before that lovely dinner. It was The Trip to Bountiful, for which Cicely Tyson won a Tony. I mention it not because it’s a lovely, subtle play [and movie with Geraldine Page] by Horton Foote, but because it was such an unexpected thrill to see genuine star power on stage. And I’m not talking about the power of celebrity, which is its own weird, slightly creepy entity, but rather power that comes from within, the diamond-hard center of an artist. Tyson lights up the stage with her enormous talent. Moving beyond words. Had this been the 1950s, I’d have sent a bouquet to her backstage and begged to introduce myself.)

But before the show, I was lucky enough to spend an hour with Ruth Reichl in the lovely library section of the bar at the NoMad Hotel. Ruth had just been to the aforementioned event at Stone Barns and had been deeply impressed. It merited the attention of the NYTimes the following day, and here’s why it was so important to Ruth, what made it a powerful event:

Dan was focused on having the chefs work with the breeders, she wrote in a follow-up email, so they can, as he says, “write the recipe from the very beginning.”  And that’s certainly a compelling idea. The next day Michael White said to me, “I’d never thought about the fact that we were working with compromised ingredients.” But the three facts that really stuck with me had nothing to do with that.

1. We’re telling people to eat more vegetables, and many of the vegetables that they’re eating don’t have much nutrition.

2. Seminis, the largest seed company in the world (owned by Monsanto), controls 40% of tomato genetics.

3. If you could go back a hundred years and ask a seed breeder about some “heirloom” variety, he’d look at you as if you were insane and ask why you were focused on a hundred-year-old variety. For breeders it’s a constant process of evolution. I think about that now, every time I see an “heirloom” tomato.

Dan Barber wrote in an email what he thought most important: That heirloom and heritage breeds, while great, are the past—they represent a moment in time that we stopped and captured. Modern breeders can do a lot better—better nutrition, better yield, and better flavor. They simply need to be asked. Right now, no one is asking them.”

And everyone seemed to agree that as multinational corporations control more seed genetics and promote monocultures (bad to rely on as they can be decimated by bacterium, like this corn), it is critical for chefs and consumers to encourage breeders to create seeds that give us exactly what Barber and Reichl asked for—most of all, better nutrition.

It’s an idea I encountered when I wrote about one of the great food areas on the planet, Gascony, the southwest corner of France, where I met a “peasant baker” who is growing small patches of 250 different kinds of grain (shown above) to sell to growers, and where the wonderful Kate Hill of Kitchen at Camont, while driving Donna and me to the Chapolard farm, which grows the feed for its own hogs, said to us, “When you barbecue ribs, does it start with the pig? No, it starts with the seeds.” In the upper right photo Kate holds the feed grown by the Chapolard family.

It should be obvious but it’s not: we need to focus on where our food (all life, for that matter) begins: the seed.

© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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12 Wonderful responses to “Letter from NYC, Part Two: Seeds”

  • Jamie @ arugulaholic

    Would have loved to witness this event. Sadly it’s an uphill battle in this country but at the least we have industry players who are speaking up. Nice post.

  • Tags

    It’s startling to read this only a few days after I picked up my long-dormant copy of Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” and read essentially what you just said. I really wish I had read this book earlier, but so many books and so little time that we only discover books worth reading by accident (as I did) or dogged determination.

  • joeinvegas

    I agree with it, but for sure any ‘modern’ tomato I buy in the store is crap compared to heirloom varieties from my back yard. Sometimes the local Vons has a few heirloom, which are usually a lot better than the stock stuff but way too expensive.

    • Harry

      Evil is a strong word and implies deliberate negative intention.I don’t think Monsanto is evil. I think it’s responding rationally to the incentives it’s presented with. We need to give it different incentives.

  • A.S.

    This is a great post. I appreciate Dan Barber’s point the most: there is a market for new varieties that excel in characteristics like taste, but it isn’t being exploited well now. The market is concerned with creating new varieties for yield, transportation, disease resistance, etc. Well, there’s no reason that we can’t include taste.

    I think of the green zebra tomato. It isn’t an heirloom – it was created only a few decades ago. Tom Wagner was the breeder that created it, and Alice Waters popularized it. Why not have the future versions of Alice Waters actually work with the future versions of Tom Wagner? There doesn’t need to be any serendiptiy in finding something that’s the flavor you want. The tomato world is filled with interesting and new creations. That should be the model all over.

  • Ruth

    This is interesting. I’ve been to the Stone Barns place, met Quinn (one of the many volunteers), walked around, snooped, asked questions. I’ll go back again. Yes. Life, and food, comes from seeds, but food also is of a place (a cauliflower grown in France will taste different from a cauliflower grown in Missouri, even if from the same seed stock?..this is a supposition on my part, something I’ve read without seeing the research). My point is that soil, along with weather patterns, rain (acidity or alkalinity), also plays a large part in nutritional content. Or so I would think. Again, interesting. Thank you for the post.

  • Darcie

    I posit that anyone who saves seeds from their garden *is* a breeder, even with so-called “heirloom” varieties. I selectively choose which plants from which to save seeds, reinforcing the traits I desire. I’ve even experimented, in a very rudimentary manner, with cross-pollinating. Modern hybrids can be great but their propagation is not as easy as open-pollinated varieties. This matters most in small-scale agriculture in developing countries. Corporations like Monsanto make a big show of giving seeds to poor people in those countries, but alas the farmers often cannot save the seed for the next year’s crop, and they are then beholden to the seed companies.

    I also think people conflate the term “heirloom” with “open-pollinated.” The former implies a static state while the latter, which many avid gardeners favor, isn’t limited to what has happened in the past.

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