Experienced gardeners know what I mean when I say I must have had "catalog fever". In several moments of weakness, the gloomy dark days and re-circulated dry air of February weighed much too heavy on my summer-loving soul and I did the only thing I could to find relief - I read seed catalogs and dreamed of a colourful, diverse garden filled with every kind of vegetable under the rainbow.
As a chef and food enthusiast, I know there are countless varieties of vegetables in this world that vary greatly in taste and appearance from the typical staples available at the local grocery store. Much of the regular grocery store varieties are there because they are cost effective, consistent in looks, can be stored for long periods, and can be transported without losing quality. While they may offer stability and greater yield, it's often at the sacrifice of taste and aroma.
Living in a mono-cultured world - especially when related to food - can have serious consequences on the environment and on nutrition, too. What was once thought to be a method of creating a reliable food system has actually been proven to threaten the very system it was meant to save. Soil depletion, possible risks associated with genetically modified organisms, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and lack of genetic variety are very real and dangerous threats to ensuring a safe and healthy food supply. When there is a lack of genetic diversity, one disease could wipe out an entire crop because it's not just a small patch of plants that are susceptible to a disease, it's the whole crop because they are all the same. Sometimes these crops span entire continents and can impact food supplies across the entire planet.
Monoculture can also be hazardous to a healthy diet. Throughout much of the 19th, 20th and the 21st centuries, fad diets and trends have come and gone. What has been consistent and makes the most amount of sense is the advice to eat a wide variety of real foods. Our bodies are complex machines with chemical and neurological reactions happening all the time, many of which we don't understand. We need nutrients like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (in different ratios) and we also need vitamins and minerals to grow, heal, and perform at optimal levels aka. to be healthy. The thing is, our bodies are so complex we don't know exactly how much we need of these chemicals, or in what combination, and each body can react differently at different times in our lives. In order to ensure we get the right balance, the experts (you know, the ones with Ph. D's and fancy offices full of medical journals) continually advise moderation when choosing what to eat, unless of course you have been instructed differently by your medical doctor.
Another threat with a world full of mono-culture is a lack of variety in culture. Much of the traditions and celebrations in society focus around food. We eat cakes on birthdays, wafers at communion, clink wine glasses together on New Years, put oranges in our Christmas stockings, roast turkeys for Thanksgiving, tap maple trees for sap in the spring, and hopefully sit down together at dining room tables to enjoy home-cooked meals and company at least a few times a week. Food is written about in poetry, musings, and cookbooks. Food is painted, sculpted, and photographed. Food is shared, personified, and the fact that we need food to survive means we all must eat in order to live and that connects us all together. We can learn about society and history by studying what was eaten or grown. Did you know salt was once reserved for the rich and the word 'salary' is derived from that association? Food is more than just sustenance- it is a reflection of who we are. If the diversity of food is gone, culinary traditions and the quality of food will decline with it.
All is not lost though. With passionate activists, home gardeners, a push for local food campaigns, an increase in culinary education, and a willingness to learn and try new ways of living, we can preserve our natural diversity and protect fading agricultural practices.
Those dreams in February I had of a rainbow garden have become a little closer to reality. After several weeks of hibernating with the oven and checking the mailbox thrice daily, a large parcel of vegetable seeds arrived today. The 'catalog fever' I experienced became apparent when I opened the package - 35 white envelopes filled with heirloom vegetable seeds now cover my kitchen table.
No, this isn't my first bout of 'catalog fever'. Several years ago I decided I wanted to grow heirloom tomatoes as a summer hobby. 14 varieties and 180 pots later, I eventually traded tomato plants with the produce manager at the grocery store for a couple of cacti. Those cacti then inspired a new gardening infatuation of mine which still continues today: succulents. Hens and chicks may be heartier plants to grow (and drought tolerant!) but just like agriculture, I thrive on diversity. I will be digging in with my green thumbs this summer with plenty of vegetables to eat, share, preserve, and photograph.
As I get my seeds started, I will be sure to document the growing progress and share ideas with you on how to cook, serve, or preserve them. I won't list them all here, but some of the vegetables I am attempting to grow include: lemon cucumbers, black radishes, 8 types of tomatoes, 2 types of watermelon (which I don't even like), miniature muskmelon, romanesco broccoli, fennel, amaranth, 3 types of carrots, 4 types of lettuces, kale, mustard greens, white beans, and 3 types of beets.
Interested in learning more about preserving culinary traditions, food diversity and agricultural practices? Slow Food Canada is a great place to find out more information.
Want to order rare heirloom vegetable seeds from Canada? Heritage Harvest Seed is where I sourced mine from.
Edit March 5, 2013: I just read an article about mono-culture (specifically relating to corn production in the US) and I think it relates very much to this post. Here's a link to the article.
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.