Cooking, Farming

EcoFarm 2015: Deborah Madison

Deborah Madison discussing Sibley squash. Photo courtesy EcoFarm.

“Vegetable literacy has to do with seasonality, variety, and names,” Deborah Madison said, standing on a stage decorated with leeks, squash, and cabbage. “If we don’t know what to call a vegetable, then we can’t ask for it — and that’s a varietal that will disappear. We can remember the brand names of jeans, for goodness sakes. We certainly remember the names of some vegetables.”

Keynoting at the recent EcoFarm Conference, Madison spent the greater part of her hour underscoring the importance of pronouncing the proper noun. “If a vegetable has been called out by name,” she said, “then it must be worthy.”

Madison, the founding chef at the revolutionary San Francisco vegetarian restaurant Greens in 1979, is the author of many excellent books, including the eponymous Greens Cookbook and, more recently, Vegetable Literacy, an encyclopedic work of chefnobotany that looks at the ways plants are interlinked, investigates how they can be thoroughly eaten, and suggests best ways to prepare and swap members of the same genus.

Of importance to Madison on this day was that farmers take the time to correctly label their vegetables and produce, perhaps including such supporting text as “lovely with basil” or “takes marinades well” to help customers imagine the culinary possibilities of their offerings. They should also educate, perhaps noting that the health craze for blueberries is slaked in January far from where blueberries grow by the consumption of blue potatoes, which contain the same healthful phytonutrients as the fruit.

It’s just good marketing, after all. But moreover, Madison says, it helps to extend the lifeline of particular strains. Pointing to Portabello mushrooms and Angus beef as successfully branded foods, she urged farmers to consider attaching a memorable — and correct — moniker to tomatoes, potatoes, greens, etc. That way, the customer can ask for it again and ideally, the farmer will be incentivized to grow it again.

“To name a fruit is to invite it to ensnare itself into your memory, where it can be regenerated at will,” Madison said. “Just say the name and close your eyes.”

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