Friday, 27 July 2012

You say tomato, I say Banana Leg

This is a guest post by David Steen; David researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at
Kellogg’s Breakfast
The giant orange tomato dwarfed my hand and its bulbous sides overflowed my palm. As I manhandled the giant fruit out of the back of the farmer’s pickup, I gave the man, leaning on the back of the truck, an inquisitive look.
            He replied, “Now that’s an heirloom tomato.”
            Perhaps he wasn’t used to people wanting to know more, but I did. As I checked out the orange orb, I asked,
            “What’s it called?”
            “Kellogg’s Breakfast.”
            The farmer and I collectively chuckled at the ridiculous name for this variety of tomato before he added,
            “Sometimes I look through seed catalogs and order ones that look interesting.”
            His response brought to my mind a stereotype I have of the American farmer, that of the man in the straw hat forever toiling on a tractor in a homogenous and monotonous field of wheat. Of course, that isn’t necessarily the reality. Farmers, both men and women, can be creative people that are enthusiastic about their work and always interested in trying to grow new things and with different strategies. I wondered if part of the reason this particular farmer raised peculiar varieties of tomatoes was to see the reaction on people’s faces when they strolled through the farmers market. I hope mine didn’t disappoint.
            I later learned that these tomatoes earned their name because of their color, which brings to mind orange juice, often served during breakfast, as well as the fact that someone in Michigan named Kellogg is credited for introducing the variety. Okay, I thought, I can go along with that. However, I did note to myself the irony of giving an heirloom (i.e., not mass produced) tomato a name that brings to mind a mega-corporation that facilitates industrial agriculture and produces what they call food on an assembly line (at least, that’s how they do it in my imagination).
Banana Leg
            Another tomato he was selling included a yellow and elongated variety known as a Banana Leg. I confirmed with him that I could save the seeds from these tomatoes and grow them myself in the future. Sure, he replied. I’m looking forward to it.
            Checking out the options at a nearby truck, I noticed a Frankenstein of a tomato. It was red, which is relatively conventional, but huge and misshapen.
            “What happened here?” I asked the woman at the stand.
            “Looks like two tomatoes just started growing together.”
            I don’t know if that’s really what happened or not, but she was right in that that’s what it looked like. Into the tote bag it went, as did a bin of cherry tomatoes.
            Later that day, while looking at the motley crew of yellow, orange, red, and Siamese-twin assortment of locally produced tomatoes I had acquired, I thought about how much we lose when we automatically think of a tomato as the uniformly-colored red and perfectly shaped object we mechanically throw in the shopping cart when we hit the grocery store. We’re not just losing weird colors and shapes, but we completely miss out on all kinds of new tastes and textures.

            It doesn’t have to be that way. The food we eat doesn’t have to be just the items that are most cost-effective for companies to produce and manufacture in bulk. We don’t have to settle for eating the tomatoes that are engineered to look identical (especially because they don’t taste as good!). Making food identical is what fast-food restaurants do with their products because they know people tend to choose the things that they are used to.
            Well, let’s get used to some weird tomatoes! Let’s get used to some non-conformity in our ingredients. If variety truly is the spice of life, don’t hesitate to throw some Banana Legs into the salad you’re having or put some thick, orange slices of Kellogg’s Breakfast onto that sandwich for lunch.
            Whenever I extol the virtues of these locally produced fruits and vegetables, someone is surely to bring up (or at least think about) how the costs of these items are prohibitively expensive. Well, I’m pleased to note that they’re not at the farmers market that I go to. And, I suspect that if you purchase your food from local farmers instead of from the grocery store (which, in all likelihood, ships in that food from all over the world), you will be pleasantly surprised at the price tag. It’s moot as far as I’m concerned though, I don’t know why the cost should even be a consideration when you’re talking about what you decide to put into your body. If you have an income, then you can afford to buy good food. You can compromise on other things.
            Have you had any luck growing Banana Legs or Kellogg’s Breakfast tomatoes? Tips appreciated.
Fermenting Tomato Pulp to Save the Seeds

Sunday, 8 July 2012

My Three Favorite Tips for Staying Connected to your Food While Living in the City

Farmers Market in Montenegro

As a University student, I often find myself sitting indoors and in front of my computer. While studying, the closest I get to a farm is the Saturday market. Because it is important for me to remain connected to my food, I’ve reflected on how to do so when stuck in the city; here are three ways to do so. If you have any of your own tips, please post them here.

1. Be creative with space.

Plants can grow almost anywhere; many will grow just fine in your house or apartment. Garlic is the perfect example. If left in storage, even in your cupboard, garlic cloves begin to sprout on their own. Although this isn’t the recommended method of growing them! All you have to do is bury the clove in soil in a small container and a few months later you will start to see your garlic plant sprout. Many people are extremely creative with space in the city. One example is the art of window gardening. Window gardens are a great place to grow herbs and spices for cooking. Another example of a creative use of space is the rooftop garden. Rooftop gardens are the answer to finding space for gardening even in the most confined living arrangements, such as high-rise apartment complexes; because these spaces are often communal, they also become a great way to share gardening tips with your neighbour! You may not be able to grow your entire meal on the roof, but many plants are content with such a space. Some examples include: garlic, chives, basil, arugula, swiss chard, tomatoes, small pepper varieties, or radishes.
Chicago Rooftop Garden (photo from

2. Read food labels.

We don’t always have the luxury or the time to graze solely at farmers markets. But, if eating local and in season is important to you, read your food labels to see where your food was produced. I’ve often made the mistake of assuming that if a plant can grow in Canada, that finding it in the market means it must be locally grown. But, that is not always the case. Take garlic for example. Garlic is a crop that grows well in Canada, but most garlic I find in the store is shipped in from China! Because some stores and markets have yet to reveal product origin information, it is often necessary to shop around for stores that do.
Estonian Wild Mushrooms
3. In one word: seasonality

Living in Canada, it is hard for me to ignore seasons! In other parts of the world, seasons are not so clear-cut. No matter where you are, plants, believe it or not, are very in-tuned to seasonality (when I talk about seasonality I’m referring to the natural growth cycles of plants). So, knowing what time of year to start planting a food will make a difference in what grows well in your home garden. Being attentive to seasons, will also allow you to organize your garden so you can enjoy your own food year-round. If you buy seeds, the package will often display the best time of year to plant local varieties. If you go to farmers markets, ask your farmer. My best advice on when to plant seeds has come directly from farmers who are highly in tune with plants' seasonal needs.

If you know what foods grow in what season you can also begin to enjoy wild edibles. Mushrooms are a great example. Many mushrooms grow wild and their harvest is often regulated and seasonally in nature areas. Some city-dwellers have taken to the art of foraging in the heart of urban areas. You’d be surprised how many edible greens are growing under the guise of weeds! Some examples include, dandelion leaves, sorrel, and mustard greens. Remember to check whether or not urban foraging areas are chemical-free. Also, wild foods should not be consumed without consulting with an expert
Wild Young Morel Mushrooms (photo from

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Forest Foraging: Recipes from Cameroon

A few weeks ago, I was in France with an international group of students for a short course in Ethnobiology. During this course, I was paired with my friend from Cameroon, Ntumuwel Bonito Chia, to cook breakfast. It was quite interesting because we were asked to create a meal using only select French ingredients. When we asked each other what we should make, we quickly realized our ideas included many things we could not find nearby. We managed just fine with bread, eggs, and cheese, but I left France very curious about the West African foods my friend suggested we make that morning.

After returning to Cameroon, my friend Bonito kindly sent me some recipes for cooking Cameroonian plants. I’ve shared two of these recipes that use plants gathered directly from the forest. I hope to take Bonito up on his offer to visit Cameroon to learn more about these plants and to taste these recipes!

Eru Leaves (Gnetum africanum, photo courtesy of Bonito)

Eru (pronounced ‘e,ru) is a traditional meal of the Bayangi people that live in the southwest of Cameroon. Eru is also the name of the plant that is the main ingredient in this dish, Gnetum africanum. Below you can see the Eru leaves cut into thin strips to be cooked.
Sliced Eru Leaves (photo courtesy of Bonito)
A dish Bonito enjoys combines boiled Gnetum leaves, crayfish, dried fish, cow meat, and a red oil (from the African oil palm). Eru is served with a side of plantains and fufu. Fufu is a dish made from yuca or cassava (Manihot esculenta). Although I believe fufu recipes differ regionally, in Cameroon Bonito explained that fufu is made by boiling and pounding the cassava root.

Bonito explained that cooking eru leaves changes their flavour from slightly bitter (uncooked) to sweet (cooked). Interesting, even when cooked, eru leaves retain an odor reminiscent of the forest. Because eru leaves are fibrous, people boil them with leaves called “water leaves” to help to tenderize the eru fibers. People living outside of Cameroon report that spinach can be used as a substitute for water leaves in a pinch!


Ndole with Fried Plantains (photo from

Ndole (pronounced ndo ‘le) is a traditional meal of the Douala people from the costal region of Cameroon. This meal is cooked using leaves from the ndole plant (Vernonia amygdalina) also commonly known as “bitter leaf”. As its common name indicates, ndole is bitter; this flavour is due to the high levels of antioxidants it contains.

To remove the bitter taste, Bonito explained that ndole leaves are washed several times in water or boiled with limestone. Ndole leaves are then cooked along with groundnuts (also known as peanuts in North America; Arachis hypogea) and groundnut oil. After this process, Bonito told me that ndole tastes sweet.

Thanks again Bonito for sharing these forest-plant recipes!

Ntumuwel Bonito Chia is a forest engineer working on his Masters in the Forestry Department at University of Dschang, Cameroon.