From GENE LOGSDON
I had no more finished the post two weeks ago about improving vegetable taste, when I read an interesting interview with Eliot Coleman, a name you all recognize, in the November issue of Acres U.S.A. Eliot has been a leader in perfecting year-round, organic farming— in Maine of all places. One of his most popular crops is “candy carrots” and how he grows them is pertinent to our discussion. He plants carrots, around the first of August, and when winter cold arrives, he slides a movable greenhouse over the carrots so that the ground doesn’t freeze. He has learned that with a double cover, or a cold frame under a fabric greenhouse cover, the ground, though plenty cold, doesn’t freeze. In the interview, he says: “When you leave carrots in the ground like this, they protect themselves against the cold by changing some of their starch to sugar, sort of like antifreeze. These are known locally as candy carrots. We’ve been told by parents that our carrots are the trading item of choice in local grade school lunch boxes.”
That’s the kind of detail about growing food for better taste that is so intriguing to contemplate. Do we know very much about soil in terms of health and food taste even with all the scientific effort that has been put to it? Does better taste mean better nutrition in the first place? I recently read about Lakeview Organic Grain Farm in upstate New York, known for its flour made from emmer, an old form of wheat. The taste of this emmer is highly prized by gourmets and food artists. It is mostly purchased by upscale restaurants. The farm grows lots of other crops including mustard, kidney beans, cowpeas, Austrian winter peas, barley, oats, rye and millet. Interestingly, not all of these crops are grown for market but as part of a very complicated, varying rotation aimed at maintaining fertility not only for the purpose of avoiding bugs and plant diseases without toxic chemicals but to increase the taste of the food. The owner of the farm was quoted as saying that the unique taste of his emmer “is not about the wheat but the soil.”
Whenever garden farmers get together, the talk always embraces taste and sometimes turns into an argument over which varieties taste better. There is, of course, no use in arguing tastes, but what if the same variety grown on different soils, does taste differently. That could explain some of the disagreement. If soil is the source of good taste, what precisely in the soil makes the difference? And if you make something taste better to humans, will it taste better to bugs too? A great many books have been written about these mysteries and many soil scientists have devoted their lives to uncovering the secrets of soil life. I once had the opportunity to look at a speck of muck soil just down the road from our place under a modern, high-powered microscope. I was actually shocked by the world of awesome beauty that opened before my eyes. It looked like a scene out of the tropical jungle with brilliantly colored micro-flora and micro-fauna organisms flashing and pulsing everywhere. No wonder this muck soil grows such wonderful crops when it is drained of excess water. If we all could watch a three hour movie of all these microbes interacting and preying on each other, and how they aid and abet healthy soil if allowed to do so, I have a hunch we’d swear off all toxic herbicides and fungicides for good.
But I worry that I overly mystify the influence of soil on food taste. I love sweet corn, but like it best at one point in its development that lasts only about a day. As the kernels develop, they reach what I call the pimply stage, then swell a little more to late pimply taste, then harden a bit more to what is considered the proper harvesting time, and then go on to get harder and chewer (or waxier, as I call it) by the day. I prefer corn in the late pimply stage, when the kernel is still a little immature but at its juiciest. Seldom is corn harvested and sold at this stage, but at its “next day” age. I think that consumers say they prefer “next day” corn only because they have never had a chance to compare it with late pimple corn. I don’t know of any tests comparing the health or nutritional value of “late pimple” corn compared to “next day” corn. Is there any nutritional difference?
Or maybe the difference is sometimes only a matter of weather. When I sang the praises of those little cabbage heads that grow after the main head is harvested, my friend and consummate organic garden farmer, Andy Reinhart, cautioned me. The little heads that form on early cabbage when the weather is still hot, are quite bitter, he says.