At the height of the summer growing season, nothing is more exciting than savoring the many available flavors. Right now, I am lost in the abundance of tomatoes, watermelon, eggplants and peppers coming in from the trial gardens at Seed Savers Exchange, while I am also looking forward to what still lies ahead. Seed Savers Exchange maintains thousands of seed varieties, and nothing argues more clearly for the value of this work than the chance to taste and evaluate the many varieties grown out this year at the organization’s farm.
My first experience with this process was many years ago when I was working on the publication of The Seed Garden and I came to Iowa for a meeting in the late fall at the headquarters of Seed Savers Exchange. In between editorial meetings, an array of roasted winter squash and pumpkins was placed on an Amish table for sampling. Staff members came out in droves, pens in hand, from cubicles and offices and the fields, to sample the varieties being evaluated and to share their opinions. As people tasted variety after variety, often eating a cracker in between to cleanse the palette, opinions emerged and diverged, at least among those willing to discuss their evaluations. The more scientifically minded members of the team seemed to prefer to work on their rankings without outside influence, and remained silent.
What evolved, and has continued to evolve since, through subsequent tastings of beets and carrots, celery and garlic (the garlic was placed in olive oil and eaten with bread), is the argument for maintaining genetic diversity. As staff members rated the flavor of each numbered variety (a blind tasting by design), there was much agreement on common favorites. However, there were also outlier varieties that got passionate support from tasters with different palettes. While tomatoes were ranked on the basis of acidity, sweetness and texture, it was sweetness that seemed to be the overriding determinant of popularity. Yet, I discovered that my favorites were low in both acid and sugar. I guess, when it comes to tomatoes, I am uncommon in my preferences.
Back in Connecticut after my first experience with such a tasting, for the annual Columbus Day lunch that a group of my friends and I have celebrated for several decades now, I roasted up a variety of squash for my own evaluation session. ‘Waltham’ butternuts, ‘Marina de Chioggia’ winter squash, and ‘Fordhook’ acorns sat cheek by jowl on platters with wedges of ‘Queensland Blue’ and ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkins. They were all split and roasted with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper and placed out for sampling as part of the main course. Red wine was used to cleanse the palette between tastings.
I loved the Blue Hubbard types but as I was not blindfolded, I am still not sure how appearance may have influenced my preferences. Of course, this concern is probably irrelevant because tastes change and evolve and so do the varieties we love. But, the great pleasure of savoring them in their moment stays with us for a lifetime. My friend Betsy still talks about how much she loved tasting the various squash side by side.
So as the season progresses, I plan on working my way through melons, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, noting what I think I will want to grow next year and writing down the names of the varieties I like best so I can order seed. But I am also realizing that my decisions about what to grow next year may evolve as the winter brings along seed catalogs of varieties I have never tasted. And, although we are months away from Thanksgiving, for this bounty and the variety from which we have to choose, I am truly thankful.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.