Why We Conserve Plants and Flavors
A look at the basis of Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s underlying motivation
There are things from that past that must be preserved. In the food of our place there are old flavors, ingredients, and techniques of preparation with such intrinsic worth, that any energy expending to insure their persistence is justified.
One class of plants commands particular attention: the landraces. These are ancient strains of grain, or varieties of vegetables, that have been shaped by seed selection over centuries.
Many of these have been supplanted from fields and gardens over the past half century. Because they are open pollinated they cannot be a corporate property — no agribusiness can assert a proprietary claim on their dissemination; so they are purposely neglected by companies in the business of supplying crop seed to farmers.
Landraces do not lend themselves to conventional cultivation, to vast monoculture plantings in sterilized fields with chemical supplementations. Nurtured in times when water was uncertain, pest pressure constant, fertilizers modest, the ancient landraces when exposed to fertilizer packages and regular irrigation often overgrow.
Landraces also entail a broad range of genetic diversity within the strain — a resource that enables a crop to grow partially in even terrible seasons because a portion of the plants have the alleles possessing survival traits. The more genetically focused creations of current plant breeding do not have this flexibility. An entirely new strain of plant must be created to respond to changed growing conditions. There is no inbuilt genetic adaptability, such as landraces possess.
The taste of landraces most compels our attention. All animals identify the portions of their environment that are edible and nutritious by taste. From simple cell organisms, to insects, to mammals, every creature is chemically hard wired to respond to certain chemical signatures registered by tasting.
That which tastes best is that which is best for you.
Omnivores have a broad responsiveness to sugars, proteins, acids, and fats, yet discriminate those that inspire satisfaction more readily.
Early humans who engaged in grain cultivation each season sought those plants that seemed most wholesome on repeated consumption, indeed, saved seed from those, to insure more of the nutritious harvests in seasons to come. These early societies lacked writing systems or explicated theories of nutrition; yet the seed selectors and plant breeders using eye, nose, and tongue performed the miraculous reshaping of maize, wheat, oats, rice, barley, rye, farro, spelt, and a host of other plants.
The surviving old strains that have come down to the 21st century embody the agricultural and nutrition wisdom of entire cultures gained throughout history. Those tastes should not be discarded and that wisdom ignored. The tastes of the landraces were the fundamental chords upon which world cuisines were built — the deep notes that underlay all porridges, breads, and fermented beverages.
The antiquity of many landraces is such that they have been nurtured by several cultures in succession.
Since the mid 19th century, the aesthetics of plant breeding has supplanted flavor as a primary concern, making productivity, disease resistance, quickness to maturation, short stature, cold tolerance or heat tolerance, uniform configuration, and transportability more important than flavor.
The reason an heirloom vegetable movement exists is the sense that something has been lost in current crops that was once present.
A second disruption is more troublesome in that it has reframed the nature of human desire for food.
With the beginning of global exploration and trade 600 years ago, a commerce geared toward consumption began that focused on products that created sensation more than flavor — that produced somatic effects. A global commercial system emerged that Wolfgang Shivelbusch characterized as the first world drug trade, dealing in spice, tobacco, coffee, tea, sugar, capsicum, chocolate, and medicinals. All of these products induced cravings for more; none of them were nutritive in and of themselves, and all of them featured pronounced, indeed, sensational taste.
Since these consumer products became available, the desire for flavor has been skewed away from the wholesome to the spicy, salty, sugary, fatty, buzzy. The paradigm of the industrial designed food is the Cheeto — a tasteless corn matrix for carrying the fat spice salt additives.
Yet the human body remains chemically hardwired to respond favorably to that which nourishes it and tastes good. And so, when you taste bread made from a traditional bread wheat that has not been processed to nullity, the flavor is a revelation. When you taste a bowl of Carolina Gold Rice grown in good soil with clean water, the mouthfeel is so lustrous and the taste so fulfilling that you wonder how you could have ingested so much mediocre rice in your life.
A sense of home of family and community gets built around such enlivening flavors. The sharing of good food becomes a binding ritual of civil society.