Celebrating Organic Seed


Sweet Corn Varieties brought by Dr. Bill Tracy from Wisconsin
Sweet Corn Varieties brought by Dr. Bill Tracy from Wisconsin

Monday night was the Culinary Breeding Network‘s 2nd Annual Variety Showcase in Portland, Oregon. The event brings together seed breeders working on varieties for organic production, farmers, and chefs to highlight the work that they are all doing to promote new and special vegetable varieties. Lane Selman, the organizer and force behind the Culinary Breeding Network, does an incredible job of bringing seed breeders from all over the country, and pairing them with chefs who can prepare their vegetables into tastings that give a sense of their potential.

The format for the event is pretty simple: seed breeders and/or farmers are paired up with chefs well in advance and the chefs work with the vegetables to prepare a tasting. On the night of the event tables are set up around the perimeter of the very lovely cafeteria at Chris King Components (a high end bicycle parts manufacturer in Portland that has a love of good food). The tables are set with displays of the vegetables, dishes with raw samples, and the samples that the chefs have prepared. The room filled with journalists, chefs, farmers, and seed breeders and then Lane made some opening remarks giving the context and making short introductions to the participating breeders. After that it was just a big crowd of about 200, sampling the goods and talking with the chefs, breeders and farmers, and each other about what they were tasting. Lane also put together excellent print materials to help guide people through the event and the tastings.

As a farmer, I’ve been working with Lane on vegetable projects for about ten years now and she’s always included tastings in the work that she’s involved with, not forgetting the importance of flavor when we’re choosing varieties. We’ve worked together, and with lots of other farmers over the years on countless crops, mostly trailing varieties under organic production methods to look at their potential for yields, disease resistance, storage, cold tolerance, etc., but always also looking at flavor. In all of these trials we’ve looked at commercially available varieties, but from the very beginning we’ve also been trailing new plant material from seed breeders along side the commercially available seeds. About seven years ago she started inviting chefs to be a part of the conversation and the synergy is incredible.

Now, at the Variety Showcase, we have all three groups in the same room at the same time. As a farmer I’m able to talk to the breeders about what characteristics I’m looking for, and to the chefs about what they’re looking for. They are also giving me ideas about new crops, new techniques, new marketing avenues, and I get to see, touch, smell and taste the products right there. I had a great time catching up with friends from the food world and getting inspired by new crops and incredible preparations of old crops that give me new ideas.

I was tabling with Andrew Mace from Le Pigeon and Shaina Bronstein from Vitalis Organic Seeds. With Our Table Cooperative I’ve been growing fennel trials so we had 6 to sample at the table, and Andrew had made a take on chips and dip with the fennel that was delicious. I didn’t have a chance to make it around to all of the other tables; every time I’d go out to try to see what was out there I’d run into someone I wanted to talk to and then spend all of my time on just one or two items, but I did get to see most of it, and I talked to a lot of people about fennel and what I’ve noticed growing a dozen different varieties side by side this year. In the mix of crops being highlighted were carrot breeding lines, sweet corns, or perhaps more accurately vegetal corns which are sweet but also have amazing corn flavor and are for fresh harvest, really exciting work on American groundnut (Apios), winter squash, many different peppers and beans, winter melon, barley, wheat, shiso, parsley, and probably a hand full of others I either missed or didn’t get a chance to see.

This event in some ways is showing food at an exclusive craft level, but in typical Oregon style, it is anything but elitist. The emphasis is on featuring the vegetables, the importance of moving our food system forward, towards Organic techniques, and celebrating the breeders who are making this possible while raising everyone’s level of understanding and creating positive connections.

Chef Tim Wastel making samples of a charred “gypsy queen” pepper cured Oregon albacore with “Szentesi” cherry type pepper emulsion. This was incredibly delicious, and was only one of the dozens of amazing tastes that featured the vegetable breeding work that’s being done.