Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 37, Spring/Summer 1995
Conserving Biodiversity

Crazy tomatoes and purple potatoes: A chef's perspective on biodiversity

[picture of Janos Wilder]by Janos Wilder


Long before I make my way to the kitchen in the morning, the decisions that are going to inform my menu have been made by my gardeners and other suppliers. They, more than I, are responsible for what guests at Janos will have for dinner tonight.

The sort of cooking I do is at odds with the food corporate America seems determined to produce. I want twenty different kinds of tomatoes from which to choose, a dozen varieties of eggplant, and a rainbow of basils from citrus to cinnamon. I want to make sorbet from chocolate mint. I love the purple Peruvian potatoes that taste like the earth in which they're grown and the creamy, buttery taste of the Yukon Golds. I want the unique, the unusual, wild colors, different scents. That's what keeps my cooking lively and my customers coming back.

We live in an era when geneticists are capable of creating tomatoes with high yield, drought resistance, long shelf life, and uniform size, shape and color, but these engineered foods all too often are of mediocre quality. The tomato picked, packed, and shipped before its prime does not taste as sweet and is not as juicy as the one picked at its peak. Chickens that are hybridized, hormone-packed, and stacked in pens for life are not as succulent as free-range birds on healthy diets allowed to come naturally to size.

Standardization and uniformity meet the demands of chain restaurants and supermarkets, which value efficiency and the bottom line above all and which understandably require consistency and predictability. But the consumer is the poorer for it. Commercialization of the food chain has provided abundance, but it also has led to a sameness and blandness in the food many of us eat. If we demand strawberries in January, they're not going to be the sweet, juicy, fragrant strawberries we remember from Augusts past. Worse still is when producers grow the same strawberry in August as in January.

Working toward consistency and sameness can have the dangerous side effect of limiting the gene pool, even of making some foods extinct. The temptation is to discard the species that aren't up to the standards of mass marketing. A case in point is the turkey. Thanks to commercial breeding, there is now only one gene pool from which to draw worldwide. If I want turkey, I have no choice in the matter. There is only one kind on the market.

The threat to restaurants like Janos--which relies for its menu on the freshest local produce, meats, and fish and on a wide variety of flavors, textures, and colors--is clear. Without choices we are locked in to standard products and so lose the flexibility that is the key to our cooking.

In response, small organizations are cropping up all over with the goal of preserving the gene pool. They are working to collect native and heirloom seeds, both as a means of maintaining our cultural archives by preserving variety in our food sources and to save from extinction those traditional crops that we are in danger of losing altogether.

The challenge to the food industry is clear: provide consistent, good tasting, nutritious products for the mass market while maintaining the biodiversity on which the food chain depends. I'll be delighted if corporate farming can produce consistently sized and shaped red tomatoes year-round--so long as I can still put a salad of crazy tomatoes and grilled heirloom eggplants with melting chevre and opal basil vinaigrette on my menu in July.

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Author information

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Janos Wilder is chef and proprietor of Janos, a celebrated restaurant situated in an historic adobe house across a courtyard from the Tucson Museum of Art. He recently launched a moveable feast he callsWild Johnny's Wagon , and is the author of Janos: Recipes & Tales from a Southwest Restaurant .

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