February 12, 2013

From More Varieties To Less: America’s Loss Of Fruits And Veggies recently shared information about varieties of fruits and vegetables once available to consumers. Over a hundred years ago, in 1903, Americans had many more choices in these varieties. Here is a list of the varieties available to cooks and eaters then:

Beets: 288

Cabbage: 544

Sweet Corn: 307

Lettuce: 497

Muskmelon: 338

Pea: 408

Radish: 463

Squash: 341

Tomato: 408

Cucumber: 285

How lovely would it be to be able to choose from 408 different varieties of tomatoes or 497 lettuce options? Can you image the kinds of sauerkraut one could make with 544 different cabbages? Or even better, the delicious pickles we could make from 285 diverse cucumbers? Oh, how my vegetarian mouth is watering right now!?!

Alas, though, by 1983, here were consumers’ options:

Beets: 17

Cabbage: 28

Sweet Corn: 12

Lettuce: 36

Muskmelon: 27

Pea: 25

Radish: 27

Squash: 40

Tomato: 79

Cucumber: 16

These are drastic drops in options. What I wonder is how this affects cooking? If we no longer have the same numbers of tomato varieties, does that mean that we can no longer make dishes that call for a certain tomato now unavailable in the National Seed Storage Laboratory? And just what does limiting the number of varieties provide?

If people are anything like me, then they want options. I do not like knowing that I do not have the same food options as my ancestors a hundred plus years ago. Moreover, I do not like the fact that I do not understand why we no longer have as many options. I mean, think about the sweet corn. In 1903, 307 varieties were available to people. In 1983, only 12 varieties were found in the National Seed Storage Laboratory. That means that only about 3.9 percent of the varieties were still in circulation. What happened to the other 295 options? Where did they go? And why are they no longer available?

If we no longer have some of these options, does that mean that the science of cooking has narrowed? If cooks, chefs, and bakers no longer have access to some of these fruit and vegetable options, does it not reason that they have to settle for perhaps less desired choices? Let’s use tomatoes as an example.

Every year, I grow several varieties of tomatoes from beefsteaks to cherries to plum tomatoes. I like black cherry tomatoes for my salads while beefsteaks grow large and full and are tasty on burgers (or veggie burgers for vegetarians like me). Plum tomatoes are good for making soups and sauces because they have more meat and less seeds. If we no longer have access to varieties of plum, then making delicious homemade pasta sauce will be more difficult. Settling for a  beefsteak tomato means more seeds, less sauce, thus less flavor. Plus the texture would change due to the added seeds.

I do not want to have to settle for a variety of tomato that would not make the best sauce. Really, what makes me most uncomfortable about’s information is that I do not understand why the varieties have been cut so much. I willingly concede that I do not know the reason that we only have 19 percent of the tomato variety from a century ago. But I definitely want to understand.

Image Credit: AlinaMD / Shutterstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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