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Seeds Join the Farm-to-Table Conversation

Their names grace jars of sauces, covers of cookbooks, and of course, the marquees of their four-star dining establishments. But so far, the nation’s master chefs have not lent their monikers to actual vegetables. That could change, however, with the help of one seed scientist at Cornell University. Michael Mazourek, PhD, assistant professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics, has been meeting with chefs and asking them to describe their dream produce, such as tomatoes with rougher skin, so knives do not slip during slicing, or a butternut squash that caramelizes more evenly and is available longer. “This is the newest part of the farm-to-table conversation,” he says. Armed with these practical desires, Mazourek set to work to breed the vegetables chefs most covet. The results: this winter’s Honeynut squash—a mini butternut that caramelizes beautifully. In spring, expect the seeds of his Silver Slicer cucumbers to bear a milder, sweeter fruit with a white skin that resists mildew.

Mazourek explains that the consolidation of the seed industry in the last century created a mass extinction of locally adapted cultivars, sacrificing variety for yield, size, appearance, and transportability. This led to farmers getting seeds not adapted to excel regionally. Chef Michael Brisson of Martha’s Vineyard’s l’étoile discovered the hard way that seeds matter. He sources as much produce as possible from a local farm, but one year the tomatoes were disappointing. When he spoke to the farmer he learned the seeds had come from overseas. He is now on a mission to make seeds part of the culinary dialogue. With Mazourek’s help, seed-to-table might soon be the phrase on the tongues of epicureans everywhere. That, and perhaps a Mario Batali tomato.

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