What You Need to Know about Vegetable Cross-Breeding

Photo © Shawn Linehan
By Bill Donahue Posted March 09, 2015

Scientists are using ancient methods to create delicious new vegetable crossbreeds—and chefs are taking notice.

Scientists are using ancient methods to create delicious new vegetable crossbreeds—and chefs are taking notice.

The mere aroma was enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Habanero peppers! A thick, fruity sweetness wafted out of the kitchen, invading my nostrils, and into my mind crept a haunting memory: a bully we will call Tommy Marcioni pinioning me to the ground in eighth grade, grinding a handful of super-duper-spicy hot peppers into my face, until my whole mouth screamed like a wound...

Now Matt Louis, the chef at Moxy, an inventive restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, stepped toward my table. Slowly, grinning diabolically, he brandished a little decanter containing bubbling habanero broth. Louis trickled the liquid into a bowl containing the fixings for a soup: romanesco, brussels sprouts, calamari. The waitstaff hovered nearby, watching. Even though I’d put Louis up to this stunt—even though I had provided him with a jar of the habaneros, samples of a new variety that had been bred for flavor instead of five-alarm fire—I couldn’t help feeling a little nervous. I took a spoonful of soup, then another. The taste of the habaneros was tropical and fruity, with hints of pineapple and orange. Without the intense heat, I could savor the sweetness.

Was this a GMO trick? Was I destined to glow in the dark? Not at all. These mild habaneros were the work of an old-school plant breeder at Oregon State University, Jim Myers. Using methods that date back to the days of the pharaohs, he had strategically crossed habanero plants in his test garden, selecting for the mildest chiles. Working with several hundred plants over nine years, he bred out the heat.

Unlike most modern plant breeders, Myers doesn’t try to improve yield, uniformity, storability and ease of shipping. Along with a small but growing number of horticulturists, his aim is flavor. He keeps both pro and amateur cooks and growers in mind when creating new crossbreeds that he hopes will offer both uncommon taste and versatility in the kitchen; for his mild habaneros, he even consulted with chefs. And he is finding an audience. His mild habanero seeds won’t be available to the public until 2016, but his Indigo Rose tomatoes, sweet and purple as plums, are already offered by companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Meanwhile, his peers at places like Cornell University’s Vegetable Breeding Institute are introducing their own innovations to the world, like the honeynut squash—smaller than a butternut (each is a single serving), and more flavorful.

Culinary breeding—from a chef’s perspective—began, arguably, in 2006, with a dubious gambit. Dan Barber, the chef and visionary behind Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester, New York, decided that he wanted to grow carrots that tasted a bit like almonds. With an almost religious sense of purpose, he gave the Stone Barns farmers an envelope filled with almond dust, sent to him from Burgundy, and instructed them to sprinkle it on the carrot crops. Then, as Barber later wrote in the New York Times, he dreamed of appearing on magazine covers, hero-like, “in a cowboy hat, beneath the headline, ‘Chefs as Farmers-Scientists: The New Frontier in Food.’” His carrots lacked even a whisper of almond flavor, though, and Barber soon realized he needed to seek wisdom and guidance from plant breeders. He summoned 15 of them (including Myers) to Stone Barns in 2013 for a global chef summit called G9. His new book, The Third Plate, is a manifesto of sorts on the importance of culinary breeding. He beseeches the food cognoscenti to champion this cause; otherwise, he told me, “We’re in the hands of big seed-slash-chemical companies who just want to dumb down our vegetables, so we’re growing the same carrots in North Dakota as we are in Florida.”

Chefs are also beginning to connect with plant breeders on a grassroots level, at least in Portland, Oregon, thanks to the efforts of an entomologist named Lane Selman. Selman’s job title is quite wonky: She is a research coordinator in the horticulture department at Oregon State University. She’s also a hip, hyperactive innovator with a cult following. In 2012, while she was in her thirties, she launched the Culinary Breeding Network, with the stated goal of “bridging the gap between breeders and eaters.” Her first gesture was a party at which Portland’s top chefs tasted Myers’s habaneros. Later, she began inviting chefs to her test plots outside Portland, to taste obscure and experimental kales and beets. And last fall, she gathered 12 chefs and paired each one with a plant breeder who supplied a new vegetable variety that the chef in turn worked into a recipe.

When I ate at Moxy last fall, it was Selman who had UPS’d the habaneros to New Hampshire, along with what seemed like thousands of pages of arcane information. Somehow she made clear that these peppers were more than just produce. And I realized I needed to fly west to talk with their promoter.

Selman is 5'1", with black bangs and a flittering, pixie-like manner. When I met her for dinner on a rainy evening at a Portland restaurant called Firehouse, she was wearing chunky high-rise shoes and cuffed jeans. A delicate tattoo of birds in flight adorns her clavicle. She spoke with ardent impatience about mainstream plant breeders, who tend to work for large land-grant universities in close concert with big seed companies. “They never consider taste,” she said, “and taste is a right—we’re all entitled to things that taste good.”

Scattered around us, on shelves, in corners, were dozens of lovely, strange squash. Some were long and columnar, with bulging bells at the base; others were round and green with rough skin, like the hide of an alligator. But looks weren’t the main point; taste was. Just four days earlier, Selman had hosted a “squash party” here, introducing chefs to this array of gourds, some of them bred to be delicious when eaten raw.

Firehouse was just our first stop. With Selman, any endeavor involving food is epic—a journey. After a few days of vegetable explorations we finally ended up at tiny Le Pigeon to have lunch with Jim Myers. Myers is a modest, mustachioed middle-aged man, and he explained himself in the gentlest way. “I first encountered mild habanero peppers in the late 1990s,” he said, “at a restaurant in Tanzania.” Myers, of course, wanted some seeds, so he could adapt them for Oregon’s cool, rainy climate. “I asked the chef,” he said, “but there was a language barrier. So then I just waited until 2005, when a colleague of mine at Texas A&M released”—Myers’s eyebrow waggled now, lustily—“some mild habanero germplasm.”

I don’t want to use the word geek, but I will say that Myers was wearing a digital watch with a calculator on it. Meanwhile Le Pigeon’s sous chef, 30-year-old Andrew Mace, was wearing a black baseball cap with the brim canted upward, yo. He hailed from a different planet, it seemed, but Selman, the punk-rock agronomist, had brought these two men together in thrall of the mild habanero pepper. And now in the kitchen Mace was preparing a crudo with the habaneros. It tasted, as Selman put it, “like you’re on an island somewhere, in a warm breeze.”

We ate. We took pictures of peppers. Then Mace told me he’d just ventured out to Selman’s test plots, to pick habaneros in the rain. Le Pigeon’s pastry chef, Nora Antene, had already experimented with a different kind of mild habanero in a sherbet. But Mace was just now wrapping his mind around the possibilities.

“These breeders,” he said, “it’s like they’re using a mixing board. Ten years from now, maybe we’ll have radicchio that’s not bitter, or eggplants with edible skin. Who knows where this whole thing will take us?”

New Vegetable Crossbreeds
Oregon State’s Lane Selman reveals the most promising and disappointing innovations from the Culinary Breeding Network.

HITS: Badger Beets
These colorful beets have rings in brilliant yellows, oranges and reds and are mild and sweet enough to eat raw.

Stocky Red Roaster Reppers
The rounded top simplifies chopping and deseeding; the smooth, unwrinkled skin roasts evenly and peels easily.

Honeynut Squash
Thin-skinned yet naturally resistant to insects, this deep orange squash resembling a mini butternut is a single-serving size.

MISSES: Leaf Celery
Grown for the leaves, not the stalks; breeders tried with mixed results to tone down the bitterness. “Chefs’ reactions ranged from hopeful to hopeless,” Selman says.

Siberian Kale
Though sweet and tender, the broad, flat leaves look more like collard greens than kale. Many cooks found that off-putting.

Ají Dulce Chiles
Experiments in growing tropical peppers have been challenging in Portland’s cool climate.

Bill Donahue has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine and Wired. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Related:
Creating Flavor in the Field
Hampton Creek Invests $30 Million to Grow a Vegan Egg
Cayenne Pepper Recipes

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