WHY DO WE EAT THE THINGS WE DO?
(Terra Firma Farm newsletter)
Most Californians have tasted an olive straight off the tree once — either just out of curiosity or as the victim of a practical joke (“What, you’ve never had one? They’re great!”). The horribly bitter, acrid flavor immediately makes most people wonder, “How the heck did anyone figure out those were edible?”. Or, for that matter, that the oil tasted so good.
The same could be said for another oil crop, one that many people have never experienced up close. Thousands of acres of safflower are planted in the Sacramento Valley each year in the early spring and harvested in late summer. Their pretty orange and yellow blooms beautify the July landscape every year, where it is planted in the early spring and harvested in the late summer. Like olives, safflower is perfectly adapted to California, requiring little if any irrigation. In its own way, safflower is as unpleasant as raw olives. Although its pretty yellow and orange flowers are beautiful from a distance, the plant itself is a thistle covered with sharp spines. A friend of mine who grew the crop once told me that the only way to walk through a safflower field unscathed was in a suit of armor. Again, how the heck did anyone ever decide it would be a good food crop?
Another hostile, thistly plant produces a popular vegetable: Artichokes. Workers who harvest artichokes actually do wear heavy gloves and coveralls to protect themselves from the sharp spines. All this for a vegetable with just a tiny bit of edible flesh on the base of each flower petal and a tender part in the middle with a nasty, fuzzy “choke” that also has to be discarded. Clearly the ancient Mediterreans who domesticated artichokes must have had very few other crops available to grow!
It’s true that artichokes are more of a delicacy rather than an everyday foodstuff. But what about Lettuce, the most common bland, watery vegetable in the diet of many Americans. It was domesticated from wild lettuce, a plant as spiny and unapproachable as an artichoke plant. I’ve never tasted it but I’m pretty sure it tastes about the same as it looks. Who was the first person who thought, “that looks like it would make a good salad”?
Not all modern vegetables are descended from spiny relatives. The Carrots that we eat today are tender and sweet, and full of nutritious vitamins and minerals. But carrots were bred from a wild plant that is nearly indistinguishable from deadly poison hemlock. Which came first, the awareness that wild carrots were tasty, or that their doppelganger poison hemlock was deadly? And who decided to keep trying to eat wild carrots after seeing someone die after accidentally eating hemlock instead? I like carrots, but I don’t think I’d risk my life for them.
Corn is one of the mainstays of the global food supply (for better or worse). Yet the plant it was domesticated from, teotzinte, was a grass with a runty seed head 100th the size of a modern ear of corn, with barely a teaspoon of kernels. And yet, entire civilizations in Central America focused hundreds of years of plant breeding on their efforts to make bigger ears of maize with larger kernels. Somewhere lost in the annals of history, an ancient Native American plant breeder must have tried to convince his peers to give up the task and focus on improving some other obscure grain.
The person who first ate a Hot Pepper and decided, “Wow, that really hurts to eat, but I bet we can make it sweet” may have been the most visionary of all of history’s plant breeders. But even more curious is that hundreds of years later, hot peppers remain far more popular worldwide than sweet ones. You have to give credit to the ancient salesman who was certain that he could convince people to grow and eat hot peppers. “Pain is good for you”, “You’ll get used to it”, and “it covers up the taste of mold and rotten meat” are a few of the sales pitches that I can imagine.
Meanwhile, there are dozens if not hundreds of perfectly tasty, extremely nutritious plants that humans do not plant or eat. In fact, some of these plants grow in the same fields as food crops, but are actively hunted down and removed with chemicals, cultivators, hoes and hands. They are called weeds. On our farm, purslane, pigweed, and lambsquarters are three examples. In many cases, they grow as well or better than the crops they compete with (I guess that’s what makes them weeds). If Mother Nature is trying to send us a message about what plants we should and shouldn’t eat, humans clearly aren’t getting the message.
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