Variety is the spice of life!

 

Does grocery shopping bore you? The same orange carrots and the same three varieties of red apples, stored for heaven knows how long (as well as the ever-exciting GREEN Granny Smith variety), the same plastic box of “salad mix”…. On the one hand, our grocery stores’ shelves are overflowing with so-called “food”, but in my opinion the grocery store produce section is a testament to the impoverishment of the American diet. According to Collective Eye Films’ new movie, “Seed: The Untold Story”, in the last 100 years 94% of seed varieties have been lost. To make matters worse, Monsanto and other large chemical conglomerates now control 60% of the world’s seed market.[1] What does this mean for us as consumers?

 

It means that a combination of government subsidies and the capitalist profit motive, two forces seemingly at odds, have conspired to fill our food supply with processed trash, to dumb down the American palate, and even to push us to the brink of a health care crisis. Our food culture has also been diluted from above by the USDA, an agency whose qualifications to formulate a healthy diet is dubious. I am thinking specifically of the “food pyramid” of my youth, the one that had as its base the oversized chunk of breads, pastas and whole grains meant to comprise the majority of a “healthy” diet. Think about that: government subsidies to mega-farms in the mid-west that grow GRAINS, and a USDA sponsored diet that suggests we stuff a majority of our diet with relatively nutrient-poor grain products. I would suggest that this focus on grains in the diet has been a large factor in the shrinking of the variety of seeds, a shift in our focus away from vegetables that SHOULD comprise the majority of our diet, and the resulting nutrient deficiency in the average American diet.

 

I say this not just because our farm produces mostly vegetables. As you may have intuited from the topic of this blog, I love food and cooking.  I love many kinds of cooking styles, philosophies, and techniques – French, Chinese, Thai, Indian, vegan, raw, macrobiotic, fermented, and the list continues to grow. I am also very interested in nutrition and the power of food to heal. When I first started cooking for my partner Ron, I needed to learn about a whole new world of cooking because he had Crohn’s Disease. Research led me to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet.  The connections between food, gut flora, and overall health are nothing short of astounding. I will go into more detail about this information in a later blog, but for now I mention this topic because it motivates my focus on vegetables as the basis of a healthy diet and as the means to heal and then maintain a balanced system.

 

So, if vegetables are the basis of your diet, and if you are further restricted by a specific health condition such as Crohn’s (or any of the related conditions such as Celiacs, Colitis, and IBS), you will certainly not be satisfied by the grocery store’s limited variety of produce and very limited variety of ORGANIC produce. I write ORGANIC in all capitals because pesticide residue levels in certain conventionally raised vegetables are unacceptable and are most certainly related to the increasing incidence of intestinal tract imbalances and the resulting immune system dysfunction. [2] Go online and google “dirty dozen” for a list of vegetables that contain the highest levels of pesticide residues. Winter is a particularly difficult time to access a variety of organic produce, though I will put in a plug for the amazingly bountiful Brunswick winter market at Fort Andross on Saturdays, November through April. Spring and summer open up a world of possibilities though, and we are finally approaching that time of year when fresh organic produce is readily available at a wide variety of venues.

 

In the early part of the season here in Maine, the first varieties of vegetables available are greens.  Here is a list of greens that we either have already planted or will be planting throughout the season: arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, Mizspoona, Pink Lettucy Mustard, Golden Purslane, chervil, claytonia, frissee endive, Totem Belgian Endive, vit mache, Leonardo Radicchio, Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled Cress, mesclun mix, Pirat head lettuce, Nancy head lettuce, Flashy Green Butteroak lettuce, Lollo di Vino lettuce, Les Oreilles du Diable lettuce, Salad Bowl lettuce, and four different kinds of kale. Not only is there a huge variety in color, texture, and flavor in that list, but also the nutritional variety is significant, not to mention the culinary possibilities. Admittedly, I like to experiment with different varieties, and growing so many different varieties is probably not a formula for efficiency or profit maximization. However, variety is really at the core of our growing philosophy. And lest you think I didn’t restrain myself on my seed order, the Fedco seed catalog has 15 pages of greens varieties, including 83 varieties of lettuce alone. Fedco, based in Clinton, Maine, is an amazing resource for a staggering eclectic variety of vegetable seeds; the catalog is a combination of encyclopedia, horticultural history, cultivation guide, satirical humor, and inspiration. This catalog is an education not only in the practical aspects of growing vegetables, but also in the character and deep history of farming in New England.

 

Variety is the leitmotif of spring, and it is an indispensible element in a healthy diet. I also believe that reintroducing variety into our diet is a key to rebuilding our food culture as well as our local food economy. So as we progress toward the warmer months, I will be adding recipes to our website that encourage more adventurous eating and inclusion of a wider variety of greens. I encourage everyone to ask questions at farmers’ markets and to google varieties with which you are unfamiliar.  After all, as the cliché goes: “Variety is the spice of life.” [3]


[1] See URL for Seed

[2] For more information on the connection between gut flora, the immune system, and brain function, a good place to start is Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s Gut and Psychology Syndrome.

[3] This cliché actually has an author: William Cowper, from his poem “The Task”, first published in 1785.