Sunday, March 11, 2012

Culinary Trends: microgreens vs. the macro-scene

My microgreens are giving me trouble. For months the routine was, well, routine. Fill seed trays with soil mix; sprinkle seeds liberally; cover with a dusting of soil mix; spray. But for the past couple of weeks, seeds have been germinating in fits and starts, or not at all. Cress seedlings turn yellow and fade away, or just lay down and die. What has changed?
Here are my hypotheses:
1)  Allelopathy. Because I reuse the soil it now contains bits of seedlings and roots. These body parts may inhibit germination.
2)  Soil mix: I have been supplementing reused soil with peat moss, perlite, and sand. This may affect growth.
3)  Temperature: Days are getting warmer. This may be activating pathogens that cause damping off.

I sow a new tray of cress using a sanitary mix, with no recycled ingredients. The results are dismal. Cross off hypothesis #1. 

Cornell produced a very informative video that shows a New York farmer sensuously stroking abundant trays of green, and cutting the thousands of tiny seedlings with amazing efficiency. I am clearly not performing at an optimum level. 

And so I change my methods. I adopt parallel-ridge-type trays and employ a cup to tap the seeds proficiently into the channels. I do NOT cover the seeds with soil mix, but instead cover the trays. 

A couple of days later, two trays of cress seeds are full of skinny white threads topped with split shells and bleached leaves! I place them in the cooler of two greenhouses, take off the covers, and wait to see if they will falter or flourish. 

The fact that I am putting energy into solving this puzzle is itself a puzzle. What drives us to want to sow seed thickly in a shallow tray so that it has no chance to develop more that a single set of true leaves, and then snip its life short? The novelty of using these mini-greens to decorate a lone Diver scallop or dress up a serving of meatloaf to create a stark (and very deliberate) juxtaposition of comfort and pretentiousness is, or should I say was, the “next new thing.” At a recent Farming for the Future conference I had two very different conversations about the future of microgreens. A Washington state farmer was interested in knowing about the difficulty of producing this specialty and, more to the point, the profitability. A New York farmer remarked, with an air of superiority, “You’re still growing microgreens?!” 

The parade of culinary fads that occupies our chefs is a reflection of our consumer society. Laminate kitchen countertops will not do; they must be granite. Honeysuckle is out. Tangerine Tango is in. We need microgreens and foraged ramps and chocolate martini ice cream. When all else fails, we go back in time and (virtuously) preserve our heritage. And when the bill comes due, we crave comfort. Meat loaf and chicken soup. Or grilled cheese sandwiches. At Beecher’s on Broadway you can order a grilled cheese martini for the ultimate in comfort food. It is surely no coincidence that culinary fads trend in the opposite direction from the likely future of agriculture. 

Some food trends restore order to the madness of the “Top Chef” mentality. Slow Food was a fast hit with many who rejected the golden arches when they took on the parenting role. Leading an “authentic” life by eating “real food” resonates strongly, particularly with eaters who have never competed with slugs for their salad greens. When we forage for wild plants or pay more for eggs because the chickens were free to eat bugs, we evoke the past. We grasp for a simpler life as the present becomes more and more complex. Much thought has been given to the question of how we can meet future food demands without further degrading natural resources. The answers, say a group of experts, lie in shifting diets, reducing waste, and increasing efficiencies. Crop genetics will surely play a big part. This is a trend we would rather not think about. 

Increasing efficiency is the conventional approach to the future of food. Arne Hendriks, a Dutch artist, speculates about a novel scheme with a far different ending. It starts with zebra fish genetically modified to contain large amounts of Somatostatin, a natural hormone. As people consume the fish, their appetites are suppressed and their growth is arrested. Fast forward a few generations. The average human being is only 18 inches tall. Outdoor balconies that once served as open-air seating spaces are now filled with speed-crops of microgreens; vacant parks within urban ruins serve as subsistence farms. 

Hendriks’ whimsical plan points to an undeniable truth: the changes we have caused are out of proportion to our size. If we could shrink ourselves to the height of a chicken, a skinny seedling of cress would be a meal, or at least a portion of one. Our needs would be reduced to 200 calories a day maximum from the roughly 2700 the average American consumes now. But this is probably not the most logical way to solve global food problems. We need a realistic way to lessen our footprint—without shrinking our shoe size. 

Maybe, by virtue of their absurdity, micro-trends make us pay attention to the macro-picture. This, I believe, is Arne Hendrik’s point. 

Gary Paul Nabhan went to the Sierra Madre to relearn how little he was able to fathom of life. I need only go to the greenhouse to be humbled by nature. The truth according to microgreens reads something like this: 
Each individual has a mysterious set of preferences. 
By the time I get it right the fad will have passed.
Hydroponics have made my struggles irrelevant. 
And yet, 
Micro-seedlings are tiny pleasures. 

My cress seedlings have stretched to about an inch. And they are green! I hold one tray at a precarious angle and slice through the slender stems. 

It chafes against my nature.