On the Tomato Trail: In Search of Ancestral Roots | Barry Estabrook

from Gastronomica 10:2

A Chilean soldier was guarding a lonely garrison in the Attacama Desert near the Peruvian border when American geneticist Roger Chetelat and his field research team arrived there in 2005. The soldier obligingly provided what should have been straightforward directions to their destination: Follow the road beside the railroad tracks. As an afterthought, the sentry quietly suggested that they stay on the road, adding with a knowing nod, “landmines.”

Chetelat, an athletic fifty-two-year-old, could be mistaken for a high-school gym teacher. In fact he is the director of the prestigious C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at the University of California, Davis, the world’s foremost repository of wild tomato plants and their seeds. The Center houses a collection of tough, versatile organisms that have evolved disease resistance and tolerance to extreme environmental conditions—genetic traits that researchers can incorporate into cultivated tomatoes, a feeble, inbred lot that, like some royal families in the Middle Ages and certain dog breeds that have become too popular, need all the genetic help they can get. The Center acts like a lending library, nurturing and preserving its 3,600-specimen collection but also making it readily available to scholars and plant breeders worldwide who want to “check out” seeds for their own experiments. “If it wasn’t for the genes of these wild species, you wouldn’t be able to grow tomatoes in a lot of areas,” explains Chetelat. “I don’t think there is a cultivated plant for which the wild relatives have been more critical.”

Drop by nearly any farmer’s market on a summer Saturday, and displays of cultivated tomatoes all but scream out the word diversity. Their descriptive names say it all: Big Beef, Orange Blossom, Pruden’s Purple, Striped German, Green Zebra, Great White, Yellow Pear, Red Grape, White Cherry, Black Cherry, Matt’s Wild Cherry. But all that variety is literally only skin deep. Botanists have but one name for all those oddball cultivated tomatoes: Solanum lycopersicum. “Most of the variation you are seeing is from a few genes that control color, shape, and size,” says Chetelat. “There is very little genetic variation.”

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Making Chipas in Paraguay | Sanra Ritten

from Gastronomica 9:2

An unforgiving sun beats down on the estancia Santa Irene, an isolated ranch in the province of Concepción, deep in the heart of rural Paraguay. Although the ranch is situated along the cool river Tagatiya, the heat and humidity are so unbearable at noon that everyone, from the family members who work there to my group of culinary adventurers, takes a nap to escape the oppressive, 107-degree day at its worst.

Paraguay is a country of extremes. Extreme poverty, extreme wealth, extreme heat, and extreme subtropical rainfall dictate the way of life. We found ourselves at the estancia only because we couldn’t drive any farther. The roads were impassable, flooded by the downpours of the previous three days. Despite the fact that Paraguay is a landlocked country sandwiched between Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, with all of its trade and travel carried out by land, only 11 percent of its roads are paved.1 When the rain is as heavy as it was during our journey, the country is paralyzed.

Firewood vendors on the red dirt road leading to the estancia Santa Irene, Concepción, Paraguay. Photograph by Sanra Ritten © 2007

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The March of Empire: Mangos, Avocados, and the Politics of Transfer | Robert R. Alvarez

from Gastronomica 7:3

According to the truism, we are what we eat. These days, most of us delight in eating plenty of guacamole and mango chutney. But where did those avocados and mangos originate? When did they shift from being exotic intruders to part of our daily diets? What were the politics of their transfer? Most of us haven’t a clue.

In fact, deliberate plant transfer into the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century, to the period when Darwinism spurred scientific interest in new typologies and in the recording of new species. This seemingly innocent and objective process evolved into a dynamic global strategy of plant exploration and collection that transformed landscapes and yielded new hybrid vegetable and fruit varieties. In the United States, plant transfer had a clear economic base: the us Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to provide American farmers with seeds and plants for the creation of new markets. As a result of USDA policy, farming and the national landscape changed dramatically, if gradually. New hybrids that were developed in this country became staples in regional and national markets and ultimately engendered a transformation in global agriculture.

The pioneers who sought out nonindigenous plants were by and large men of creative vision and imagination. The collection of plants and their transfer initially belonged to a burgeoning botanical science in which new plants were added to growing and impressive typologies. But economic reasoning, no less than scientific curiosity, shaped the plant hunters’ activity. The significant funding involved in organizing their travels and disseminating their work required administration by government agencies that imposed a variety of regulations and controls. Today’s network of food regulations reflects a hierarchy tied not only to health and safety but also to economics and control.

In the late nineteenth century, the USDA sent agents throughout the world to find new fruit and vegetable varieties suitable for hybrid adaptation and eventual export in the world market. These agents, largely unknown to most of us today, formed a cadre of remarkable explorers who pushed at the frontiers of botanical science and changed forever what we buy at our markets, plant in our gardens, and cook for our meals.

The Plant Hunters

David Fairchild (1869–1954). David Fairchild, a botanist and bureaucrat, grew up in Kansas in the 1870s as a member of America’s intellectual elite. He studied at the Kansas State College of Agriculture, where his father was president, and then at Iowa State and at Rutgers, where his uncle, a distinguished biologist, taught. He eventually married one of Alexander Graham Bell’s daughters. Fairchild came to Washington in the early 1890s, where he joined the Department of Agriculture and made several explorative forays abroad. Indeed, while working for the USDA, Fairchild himself introduced more than twenty thousand exotic plants into the United States, among them mangos, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, horseradish, bamboos, and after a trip to Japan, the first flowering cherries of Washington, D.C. In 1889 he convinced the us Congress to allocate twenty thousand dollars to create the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction (OFSPI) and subsequently became its first director. Fairchild’s intention, like that of the USDA in general, was to support an applied botanical science to provide American farmers with what they called “economic plants” for market development. To achieve that goal, he sent USDA agricultural explorers, known as “plant hunters,” to collect thousands upon thousands of seeds and plants suitable for America’s farms, home gardens, and city landscapes.

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