Edible, An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants

Sitting in a coffee shop in an upstate New York town currently benefiting from a “buy local” main street revitalization, my senses are awakened by the intersection of two food plants from distant lands.  The barista, on day 23 of a Paleolithic diet, is peeling a grapefruit and the aromatic vapors are drifting across the room, through the dusty coffee air and mixing with the complex bitter flavors of fair trade beans in my mouth.  I am suddenly struck by the complexity of this truly globalized experience and how reading Edible has influenced my relationship and understanding of our complex contemporary food system.

Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants, published in 2008 by the National Geographic Society, combines the stellar visual stimulation that Nat Geo has lured me with since I was a child with a top-notch encyclopedia-esque look at global eating patterns.  Edible is a book worthy of just about anyone’s collection and will satisfy the plant nerd, foodie, or historian.  The book includes an impressive list of contributors – a combination of nutritionists, chefs, horticulturists, herbalists, and food writers.  Many contributors received a Master of Arts in Gastronomy at South Australia’s University of Adelaide and their expertise is present throughout. The department’s website states that it is a “unique interdisciplinary program for people with a passion for food and drink and a desire to understand the history and culture of food and drink, and their relevance to contemporary customs and practices.”  This 350-page text explores all aspects of this theme.

Having not revisited the history of agriculture or the Fertile Crescent of ancient Mesopotamia since high school history, I steeped myself in Edible’s overview of the origins of agriculture, our evolution from gatherers to growers (the book focuses on cultivated rather than foraged plants), and how trade, exploration, and conquest has helped to form our contemporary diets. The book then goes on to explore modern advances in agriculture and looks towards our “green future.”  Following this introduction, a plant directory is sub-divided into fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, herbs, spices, and beverages with each section providing historical, botanical, and culinary information about individual plants. An additional reference section includes nutritional charts with which one can compare the Vitamin C content of such diverse plants as Chayote (a pumpkin family vegetable cultivated by the Aztecs in Central America) and Mache, also known as Corn Salad or Lamb’s Lettuce (a green with a mild nutty flavor similar to spinach).

With years of experience growing food and eating locally in the Northeast, perhaps the most intriguing section of the book for me is the chapter on fruit. Its pages are filled with images and words I have never been exposed to at my farmer’s market or in the many seed catalogs I browse each winter.   So many strange plants and new fruits to try!  I am of course not alone in my ignorance and as Deborah Madison, founding chef of San Francisco’s Greens Restaurant, points out in her forward to the book, it is not only influenced by the particular climate I live in, but is the consequence of our society’s separation from food on many levels.

“Our ignorance goes hand in hand with our long distance agricultural systems, extensive food processing, and a way of life that threatens to eliminate home cooking. We no longer pause to consider the merits of this cultivar over that; instead, we simply read the label on the can or packet. Our distance from the foods we eat can be measured not only in miles, but also in our diminishing knowledge and physical intimacy with plant foods. We know the shank of a leek, but seldom see its long banners of leaves.”

On a cold December day at The New Amsterdam Market, I got to experience first hand, many of the fruits featured in Edible.  Maggie Nesciur of Flying Fox travels from her home in Brooklyn to “U Pick” fruit farms and brings her harvest back to the city to sell to restaurants and distribute at farmer’s markets.  Underneath the cold and gray sky, she unveiled a spread of tropical fruits that she had harvested from Florida orchards and drove back to NY for the last market of the season.  The colorful skins and iridescent flesh surround seeds whose potential can never be fulfilled in the northeast, but represented tangible samples of the exotic fruits that fill Edible’s pages.  They lay upon the table in stark contrast to the dried, fermented, and canned foods of the other vendors. Just a few fruits that were included in Edible and were represented at Flying Fox’s stand were Canistel, native to southern Mexico and Central America and also known as egg fruit (serve with salt, pepper, and lime juice), Sapodilla (tree contains a latex called “chicle,” dried and chewed by indigenous populations of Central America), and Longans (“lung yen” or “long yan,” which means “dragon’s eye,” originally from China and like lychees are enjoyed fresh, dried or cooked).  Thanks to Hungry Ghost for the beautiful documentation of Maggie’s wares!

Edible serves as a crucial reminder of the very dynamic and long history of how food plants have made it to our door. So that even the apple picked from our own backyard connects us to a very distant time and place.  In the midst of the local food movement, it is a good time to look back and reflect on just how we got to where we are. Since the establishment of early trade routes, humans have had a taste for the exotic. Even more so, with the advent of trucking, refrigeration, and ripening technologies our culture has come to emphasize variety over quality so that even if we never experience the true flavor of strawberry we have been content because we have access to it 12 months out of the year.  The shift to a more localized food system has begun to shift this pattern and the perceived value of an ingredient is increasing the closer it was grown to the place of consumption.  With its beautiful pictures, culinary suggestions, and ethnobotanical information, Edible is sure to inspire gardeners and chefs to dream of new plants to diversify their meals and gardens and will unveil the forgotten exoticism of everyday ingredients that we have come to take for granted.  [Edible, An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2008]
Sara Worden (3/2/12)

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