Contrary to urban legends, most Oregonians know where their food comes from. Markets and menus advertise the names of farms and fishermen who provide the essential ingredients for our renowned Northwest cuisine.
Food is the handshake between urban and rural communities, the thing most closely shared by all Oregonians. In the business world, this handshake connects the rural economy of farm production with the urban economy of food preparation in an industry worth $21 billion annually in the Pacific Northwest. Innovation in the food industry can begin, quite literally, with the seed of a new idea, the seed of a new vegetable.
Breeding vegetable seed has traditionally focused on developing crops that are high in yield, resistant to disease, and profitable to grow. Profitability of a vegetable has a lot to do with flavor, of course, despite the ubiquity of flavorless supermarket tomatoes. But here in Oregon, flavor counts.
When breeders and growers get together to evaluate new varieties, they evaluate flavor in the most obvious, direct ways: by tasting the vegetables, right there in the field. Where were the cooks who care about blended flavors and eye-popping presentation? And where are the consumers who eat for nutrition as much as for pleasure? The food chain needed extending.
“We needed to get beyond our field tests of ‘bite it and rate it,’” said Lane Selman, who organizes vegetable variety trials as a research assistant at Oregon State University. She created the Culinary Breeding Network to complete that food chain, to connect seed growers with chefs and diners. She began the idea in 2010, when she set out to evaluate several varieties of sweet peppers. Selman took the test beyond the field, preparing each variety for tasting—raw, sautéed, and roasted—and invited Portland area chefs and farmers to evaluate the results in the field and in the kitchen.
“The results led to new varieties that provided something for everyone,” Selman said. “Chefs got more flavorful peppers, farmers got more vigorous plants, and the seed breeder got increased sales. It became clear how important it is to involve consumers in the plant breeding process.”
Selman continued to grow the Culinary Breeding Network, which now connects collaborators from across the country. Last year, she organized an invitational Variety Showcase that brought together the talent and innovation of this new community, as she paired top seed breeders with top chefs, as one might pair fine food and wine. Selman asked each chef to develop a dish that explores particular characteristics of a particular vegetable variety; then she invited breeders, growers, retailers, and food writers to taste the next big thing in vegetables.
The conversations around the room went beyond sampling existing vegetables to focusing on desirable traits for future vegetables—color, flavor, nutrition, appearance—that will guide the development of new varieties. These are not rediscovered heirloom vegetables; they are new varieties that are being traditionally bred to meet the demands of growers, chefs, and diners in a world of changing tastes and growing challenges.
Jim Myers, who heads the vegetable breeding program at Oregon State University, was at the showcase with several new types of ‘Indigo’ tomatoes, the sprightly flavored, nutritionally enhanced purple tomato that he developed at OSU. Chef Timothy Wastell used Jim’s tomatoes to create a rich Bloody Mary, sipped through the hollow stem of a new celery variety.
Myers also showcased a new, milder type of fiery habañero pepper. His new peppers have a sweet-tasting heat without the lip-scorching fire. Working with chefs has helped Myers hit the right notes for developing a flavorful new ingredient for Northwest cuisine.
Myers, Selman, and others are extending the idea of farm to table, by connecting two ends of the food supply chain: seeds and diners. By bringing plant diversity into the food conversation, innovative chefs and vegetable breeders are using all their senses, Selman says, including what they hear from consumers.