In Search of the Next Quinoa

by Heleene Tambet

Quinoa has not always basked in the gourmand spotlight, nor enjoyed the endless adulation of health enthusiasts. Before quinoa was on the front cover of every food magazine, before it took over cookbooks and Whole Foods shelves, it was a lonely crop.

Today we hear how rural farmers in Bolivia - the original consumer of the beloved superfood - can no longer afford it. Western consumption has resulted in such a price hike. A few decades ago, prior to various formal efforts to promote quinoa, those same farmers were the only ones aware of the crop. The pseudo-grain was not available in supermarkets, nor was it possible to find a packing facility, or a commercial mill that would actually process its coarse seeds. The National Research Council had listed quinoa as one of the ‘lost crops of Incas’.

Such lost crops, (also known as neglected crops, minor crops, or poor man’s crops), have a common term coined for them - orphan crops. These are plants that humans have used for subsistence for hundreds, often for thousands of years, but have fallen into oblivion in an era higher yields and bigger returns. Lost crops often do not make it to store shelves, are not deemed attractive enough for commercial mills to grind and big producers to trade. Despite of being crucial for livelihood and nutrition for millions, orphan crops are not traded internationally like commodities such as rice, corn and wheat, and therefore mostly ignored by science and seed companies.

In China, fields of foxtail millet have covered the foothills of Taihang Mountains for almost ten thousand years. It was the Cishan culture that 6,500 years BC domesticated this nutritious grain. For the past century, foxtail millet, notably also known as German millet, Hungarian millet, Italian millet, and Siberian millet, has been an irreplaceable staple for many communities in South India. Foxtail’s bigger brother, pearl millet was domesticated from a wild grass of the southern Sahara about 4,000 years ago. Its wide consumption in dry areas of Sub-Saharan Africa makes it a sixth most cultivated cereal in the world. And yet - who would have known?

 In Nunn, Colorado, first attempts to grow millet on American soil are taking place.  Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

In Nunn, Colorado, first attempts to grow millet on American soil are taking place.
Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

There are approximately 300,000 plant species around the world that are known to be edible. At its current state, we use a mere 200 of them for food, at best, and a large majority of us get most of our calories from solely three sources: wheat, rice, and corn.

How should we feel when the “food industry” limits our choices on such a narrow crop basis? There hasn’t been too much incentive for the research and development community to look into further opportunities for foxtail or pearl millet. Or fonio, teff, sorghum, kodo millet, African rice, emmer, and Ethiopian oats. Or any of the rest of the 300,000 species we miss out that may otherwise fulfill our nutritional needs and delight our palates.

Far from the white, soft, uniform wheat that pairs with Western agriculture just as corn syrup pairs with American food industry, is emmet, ancient wheat variety from Western Asia. Largely unknown by the public, it has been said that it is one the sweetest, best-tasting cereals. Emmet reached Ethiopia 5,000 years, and despite what was essentially a disappearance from the rest of the world since then, its importance cannot be understated in Ethiopian highlands where a great number of families rely on emmet to get through their day.

Sorghum, the dietary staple of more than 500 million people has a considerably wider global spread. In terms of quantity eaten, it is surpassed only by rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes. The versatility of sorghum is somewhat unforeseen. It can grow in both temperate and tropical zones, endure hot and dry conditions and withstand high rainfall. Its grain can be used for a full range of dishes from popped sorghum as a snack to malted sorghum in beer. The plant can be utilized in any phase of house building, in form of fuel, vegetable oil, wax, dye - you name it.

 Freshly harvested sorghum in the hands of Abang, a Sudanese farmer who is part of OXFAM project that aims to introduce more weather tolerant crops to areas suffering from drought.  Abdullah Ampilan

Freshly harvested sorghum in the hands of Abang, a Sudanese farmer who is part of OXFAM project that aims to introduce more weather tolerant crops to areas suffering from drought.
Abdullah Ampilan

Despite the characteristics of something that could be the world's most versatile domesticated plant, sorghum has not seen many formal efforts to facilitate its growth in comparison with its equivalent crops embedded in Western culture. The same is true for a range of crops from Africa, a continent with more native grains than any other. The heritage of a wide variety of minor crops, all eaten from time to time once the conditions - and not the humans - asked for it, stretches back to the origins of humankind. As recent decades has brought on an  embrace of new seeds from across the seas, Africa has slowly tilted away from its own ancient cereal wealth.

The global community is not doing much to reverse those trends. While in search for information, what we mostly find in regard to the characteristics of orphan crops is something in line of ‘appears to have useful characteristics’. Wikipedia articles on those plants are a quick read, standing as a symbol for minimal resources globally directed into promoting the crops and their potential.

And yet, these ‘lost’ plants have much to offer, and not just to Africa. They carry a promise for solving some of the greatest food-production problems of the twenty-first century. Africa's native grains tend to tolerate extremes. They can thrive where introduced grains produce inconsistently, and most can grow better than other cereals on relatively infertile soils. For thousands of years, they have yielded grain where land preparation was minimal, and management poor. They combine well with other crops in mixed stands. They tend to be nutritious, and as the quinoa boom has shown, they have a lot of undiscovered potential to offer for the palate that seeks for further diversity than mere further processing of the sources we already have taken the maximum out of.

Unfortunately, the neglect is also obvious where orphan crops could help the most: the path towards ending poverty. Today’s world has an array of programs focused on feeding the world, lifting people out of hunger, contributing to subsistence of small-scale farming. The underlying model for the projects is often rather simple: give farmers seeds of a variety wide-known for Westerners, give them some technology to sow the seeds, or, in worse case, ship them some form of wheat flour, produced in high quantities by subsidized Western farmers.

 In Afghanistan, large quantities of US wheat, flown in by USAID after the fall of Taliban, drove down the price of local wheat and income of many farmers.  Nitin Madhav

In Afghanistan, large quantities of US wheat, flown in by USAID after the fall of Taliban, drove down the price of local wheat and income of many farmers.
Nitin Madhav

Such model attack local crop diversity from two sides. It shifts agriculture towards grains that have proved to yield the highest in North America, Europe or (more recently-mechanized) Asia, using seeds that are already developed by big Western corporations and easy to cheaply distribute. It also creates new tastes. Teff might be nutritious and pearl millet great for the soil, but this sole notion will not make communities to continue reliance on their historical staple. Some Western consumers regard quinoa as something new and novel. Perhaps the same can be said indigenous communities who see the cereals that come in colorful boxes or ready-made wheat bread that does not call for hours of soaking or other tedious methods of manual preparation.

Whether it is neglect of cultural heritage, or the way the world dismisses its biodiversity that we are worried about, a lot comes down to mere commercial interest. There might not be much incentive embedded in the knowledge that we have thousands of underutilized food crops. Similarly, the notion of depleted soils in tropics might not take us very far on the constructive path towards solutions.

What does, is money, as proven by the story of quinoa: how the crop was found, promoted, and spread. Despite the stories of environmental destruction caused by the rapid growth of the quinoa production, and struggles of locals in Andean highlands who, due to global demand, cannot afford their historical source of subsistence, it is clear that new interest on the world market have created new opportunities for the crop and its growers.

 The selection of quinoa in grocery stores only gets wider.  Keenwah, Co.

The selection of quinoa in grocery stores only gets wider.
Keenwah, Co.

Instead of dumping the crops of their choice to poorer markets, wider opportunities may be created with a wider spectrum of crops. A mill that processes local finger millet might take a community and its ecosystem further than a truckload of wheat bread. If the ones who want to promote agricultural yields, instead of delivering seeds of Western farming, directed their efforts into enhancing practices that boost harvests of indigenous grains, we’d have hope.  

The world where vast majority of us rely on three crops will not prosper forever. The world of abundant resources and endless territories, both calling for more mechanical extraction, has already seen its peak, and if we want to continue the story of humans and their agriculture, we must be smarter. Diversity is our friend. Instead of undermining it, we must begin building a future that embraces it.


Spotlight: Neon Pig | Oxford, MS

One of the greatest joys of being in the food world is the spectacularly high quality of individuals we encounter on a regular basis. We all know real life archetypes of the earnest agrarian, the passionate chef, the charismatic proprietor. Within each of these prototypical associations, there are many unicorns, rare artists and personalities too big to be imagined. In the early fall, in Oxford, Mississippi, I met one of these unicorns, a personality and a spirit unlike any I'd ever encountered. His name is Mitch McCamey and he is the chef/partner of Neon Pig, a cafe and butcher shop in Tupelo and Oxford, Mississippi.

"The cheese is from the south, the butter is from the south, all of the oil is from the south." Mitch is howling at a random collection of mostly (southern) food writers. He's a colorful guy. His hair is peroxide blonde, but mostly kept under wraps with a baseball hat, which over the course of the weekend, I see him sporting both forward and backwards. He is boyish and may be easy to overlook in a town of mostly college-students, though he doesn't look that young. It's hard to know what to make of him, but what is impossible to miss is his boisterous Mississippi drawl. And as he begins to talk to us about his relationship to the family-owned farms of the south, we'd clearly struck a nerve. 

"I like to say we're gang affiliated with our farmers." It's not clear whether this reference has been fully absorbed by everyone in attendance, but they continue to listen politely. "We're not just kind of in, we're aaall the way in." 

The occasion was the annual symposium from the exalted southerngastrointellectual hive, Southern Foodways Alliance. After that morning's presentations, he'd wrangled about a dozen of us together to check out Neon Pig. I knew why I was there, but the rest of the group - all of whom arrived before Mitch - carried expressions that seemed to question how they'd ended up there.

Just when it appeared they may be nearing the precipice of collective patience, Mitch bounces in and launches into his 'gang affiliated' talk. But that was out back, near the smoker. Before we even made it there, he became distracted - and subsequently we became distracted - by the fried chicken bacon. Yes, fried chicken bacon. It's brined in chicken stock, cured, wrapped in a dark roux and smoked. The final result is very much like fried chicken, and though I was intrigued, it was unnerving. Was this place a gimmick? Mitch cornered me after my corn presentation, impassionately talking about his butcher shop and commitment to small, local farms. Since we were so strongly aligned on this, he had no problem convincing me to join him back at Neon Pig. But the chicken bacon isn't what I'd expected to see. 

Then we learned about their award-winning burgers, made from unusable trimmings mixed with the (legendarily smoky) Benton's bacon. The mix included sirloin, ribeye, New York strips, whatever. We also learn about their tacos, also made with meat scraps. Soon, the place is starting to make sense. They're breaking down tons meat, and they're doing it every day. 

"How many cows do you buy each year?", I ask.  "120", Mitch says. I'm floored. 120! It occurs to me, this little butcher shop, which can't be more than 1,000 square feet, in this unassuming plaza in Oxford, MS, is one of the most revolutionary shops in America. Some restaurants do a little butchering, some butchers do a little cooking, but the combination of the two at Neon Pig means that they have the capacity to buy more whole cattle than either operation otherwise would. 

Mitch continues talking. We head from the butcher counter/grocery (which also has a large black chalkboard overhanging the heavily-worked griddle that churns out these burgers, and tacos) towards the walk-in refrigerator, where a brilliantly-colored, crimson and ivory hindquarters hang. Just outside of the walk-in, we see the smoker. It's totally in accordance with what Mitch called, "micromacro", a tiny space, and a tiny smoker doing massive work to re-shape the local food system in Mississippi. We've gone quiet, the magnitude of his unassuming contributions are beginning to settle on us. Mitch fills the space by talking about where the cows are raised. 

"We use two guys. One of them is from where I'm from just south of Tupelo in the city of Polka. He's been doing it since he was in the fourth grade, in 1964."  He continues, on an irreverent, but earnest (and accurate) tirade about how growing. "People want to talk about farm to table but you're never going to get there if you start with tomatoes. If you start with the cow can get there."

He continues the point, lamenting a problem plaguing the rest of our nation. "70 percent of my farmers are over the age of 70. And local food hasn't really gotten here yet. So we're going to blink an eye and they're going to be gone and then I'm gonna be struggling. I'm not going to let that happen." 

In this moment, I realize I love Mitch. I realize that, as food lovers, as cultural preservationists, as southerners, we're very lucky for him and his work at Neon Pig - a name he says came from a favorite childhood pig, a Red Mangalitsa breed. The store begins to fill with smoke. The staff, all smiling and hospitable, are clearly used to him bringing in strangers from off of the street to tour the place. At least of a dozen of the burgers Thrillist called, the best in America sizzle loudly on the griddle.

As we're all now appropriately indoctrinated with the gospel according to Mitch, we stuff our faces with the juicy mashed patties on a soft, ciabatta. Just then, Trish, a partner and accountant walks over to ask how it's going. Between bites of burger and local craft beer, I tell her that things are slightly better than perfect, then congratulate her on their remarkable achievement of purchasing over 120 cows annually. She says thank you, but without hesitation, notes that we are in the second location, and that that figure does not include their original location in Tupelo. 

Out of nowhere, Mitch yells, "She would know! She keeps the books!"

$300,000 annually on local cattle. It's a figure that I haven't stopped thinking about since my initial visit to the little/major butcher shop. And every time I think about how impressive that is, I can't help but hear Mitch's bellowing, "We're aaaallll the way in!"  Yes, indeed. 


Neon Pig Smoker

On Land and Grandmas

by Heleene Tambet

Estonian, often ranked as one of the most difficult languages in the world, does not lack for ways to complicate the simple. Words are long, and include unimaginable letter combinations that can then be turned into number of new words. Take a word like maa. It's a basic looking word with only three letters, and yet, it has three meanings.  Maa means land, encapsulating everything from soil to "field." In another context, Maa is planet Earth itself. It also refers to an administrative unit or region. Finally, in the most daily use, maa means countryside. And if someone is about to go to maa, you can be almost certain that in following days this someone is going to: 1) drive a tractor, 2) indulge on grandma’s apple cake and 3) come back with trunk full of earthy potatoes.

 Grandfather with his farmhouse from 19th century, a rather common view for Estonians

Grandfather with his farmhouse from 19th century, a rather common view for Estonians

In recent years, Estonia has suddenly developed an international reputation as a hub for startups and technical innovation. Skype and several rapidly growing Silicon Valley start-ups rooting there. And yet, despite the high-speed internet that now covers most of the country, it largely still looks like it used to, with vast, endless forests, and here and there, an opening for a few acres of farmland. Villages are comprised of ten households, each separated by a quarter mile of rye field. It wasn’t that long ago when the majority of the population resided in rural areas, managed a farm or were associated with one. Along with the the Soviet Union occupation came vast industrialization, and by 1990's, 70-percent of the nation was considered urban.

Those statistics, however, have not diminished the connection between the people and the land. At least not yet. Farms, commonly built a century or two ago, are still there, and if you are a real Estonian, you have to have a place in countryside you associate yourself with.

In a country spanning 200 miles from one corner to another, the notion of not having been out of city for a long time is somewhat rare. An essential statement for Estonians is,  "Everybody has a grandma." The next most essential statement is that, "Grandma resides in countryside, keeps a plot of vegetables, and a considerable number of apple trees that must be picked." 

Every grandma might not have a cow anymore (many still do, though) but as long as she can, she wants to stay where she is, take care of some chickens,  ‘put into land’ some potatoes, and wait for summer to come, because that's when the grandchildren arrive.

Until the millennial generation, this was the standard model. Kids finished school in June, and no matter their level of urbanization, summer took them to countryside, to grandma’s place. Those summers most likely contained bare feet and dirt roads, endless strawberry furrows and getting lost in the woods. There might've been daily lake swims and running across fresh pasture dawn to dusk. For Estonian kids it means chopping wood, weeding carrots and picking currants. On occasion, parents came from the city and joined to help to pickle few hundred jars of cucumbers and mushrooms, harvest a barn-full of apples, and eventually, to dig up a field of those aforementioned potatoes.

There are not many days as sacred for the Estonian soul as that of the potato harvest. It looms in mid-September, accompanied by the peak of bright warm fall colors, and the very first frosty mornings. It used to bring together whole villages, one field at a time, until they dug up every potato in the area. They then store them in 100-pound burlap bags and feed on the harvest for the whole of the following winter.

Potato is a basis for everything in grandma’s cooking. Certainly grandma's cooking one expects to be out of city, in a kitchen with half-century old wood burning stove, rag carpet and herbs hanging on the walls. The food is simple. It's a lot of pork, cooked in cast iron pot on charcoal. There are lots of pickled vegetables and preserved fruit. Sauces are abundant on butter and heavy cream - to bring you through a harsh winter, of course. Salads consist of simply potato and herring, and soups of everything that last fall’s harvest brought from the ground, long cooked in pork broth. This cuisine is far from fine dining, with its peasant-like simplicity and Soviet-era frugality. And yet for most of Estonians, it is their grandma who defines a good chef in their mind. 

Those countryside summers were surely happening for the generation preceding iPhones. Things are changing rapidly now. The countryside is losing its summer residents to sedentary, technology-driven activities, and its grandmas to aging. Administrative efforts to close rural post offices, bank branches and village schools do not make it easy to sustain maa as the nation had known it. Many of the ones who stay often do so purely out of stubbornness. Cheap vegetables from Spanish greenhouses and bread from industrial factories is available in the stores all year around. You just need to move to city to get it.

And yet, for some, the connection remains.

For some of those tech people who venture out, if grandma is not waiting, there may be a neighbor from old times to still provide them with fresh honey or firewood. Maybe they have a sauna heated up for a visitor, or birch sap already in glass bottles, collected last spring. The generation who was brought up on their land, who survived the war merely thanks to the land, and who remain more connected to land than just anything else, there is something unique, something special, about this relationship. And even today, in a country that's changing, it's still lucky to have young people who know how to appreciate it. 

Growing Wild Food in a South African Township

By Ilana Sharlin Stone

Unlike most white people in Cape Town, wild food advocate Loubie Rusch regularly drives the sand swept streets of Khayelitsha, the vast township on the city’s crime-ridden Cape Flats. Notably, she does it without fear. With Rusch at the wheel, we drive into Khayelitsha’s Section A, passing corrugated tin and wood shacks occupied by families, hair salons and butchers. We’re just a few minutes from the coastline, yet I’m struggling to marry her claim that “we live in a bloody gastronomic landscape” with the immediate surroundings.



Rusch is a landscaper designer and gifted networker turned activist. Our destination:  The Cape Wild Food Garden, her pilot project at community urban garden Moya we Khaya. We’re miles from Cape Town’s colonial-era oaks and plein trees, and the wealth of biodiverse plant life on Table Mountain.

Fynbos, or ‘fine bush’, is the colorful plant life that most equate with the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the richest regions in the world for flora, yet, the Cape Flats, with its ecologically sensitive dune sand areas (and poverty), also belongs to this Kingdom. Here in Khayelitsha, where most see only weeds and sandy, infertile soil, Rusch sees a budding local economy, on a landscape that was once well foraged.

“The Cape Flats as terroir is both a new notion for us as foodies, as well as being as old as the hills – in modern terms we might well be stretching the conventional understanding of soil as terroir by suggesting the local sand as an example, but for foragers of old they would have known precisely what juicy and flavorful delicacies they would find there after the rains!”

We turn down Qandani Street, where homes are modest but permanent structures.  A neighbor winks at us as we pull into Moya, next to Manyanani Peace Park, Khayelitsha’s first community managed park.

The sudden sight of emerald plots of vegetables sparkling with irrigation droplets makes me blink twice. It’s quiet on this cooperative farm, where a few farmers tend their plots and the calls of wild birds called dikkop reverberate, as they protect their nearby eggs. Behind neat rows of spinach, broad beans, lettuces and other spring crops is the Cape Wild Food Garden. In contrast, its plants look much like weeds and shrubbery, but they are part of a controlled experiment to gauge the viability of cultivating indigenous plants.

Rusch’s desire is to see wild foods brought into the Cape’s economy. She has a hand in wild food projects in vastly different landscapes of the Western Cape: from urban gardens to a coastal private nature reserve to a project in the Cederberg mountains, working jointly with conservationists and archaeologists. She believes “that if we eat our biodiversity it will help to protect our biodiversity.”

Here at Moya, she’s growing “resilient crops that belong to this place.” She had the opportunity to establish this garden in the nearby Winelands, but Moya -- an established farm already supplying restaurants and hotels as well as the community, and a frequent stop for township visitors -- “felt right.” She is the only non-community member to be farming here. Funding from the Sustainability Institute will carry her through this initial growing phase, but she will need more for nutritional testing of the plants, an expensive process. Eight plants have been selected for the “terroir.” They also have what Rusch considers the most accessible flavors.

There is demand for “foraged” foods in Cape Town’s flourishing foodie scene, with high profile chefs among the biggest potential buyers, but key to the garden’s success is creating both sustainable crops and what Rusch calls a circular economy, which also connects with community members.

But while these plants were once eaten by Western Cape ancestors, today’s Khayelitsha residents, who mostly have Eastern Cape roots, are unaware of them as food sources. The project will need to incorporate talks and cooking demonstrations within the community. It will take work to create a taste for the largely sour and salty flavors of these plants in an area where meat, sugar and fried food are prized.

In the garden, rows of wild plants are subjected to variables: irrigated, unirrigated, composted, uncomposted, and combinations thereof. Around them is a U-shape planted with a few other plants with potential, like spekboom, a succulent evergreen shrub with juicy, sour leaves, sour figs and num num, a tangy fruit whose flavor reminds me of cranberries. All will remain unharvested this year, to track their growth and the spread of their seed.

Dune spinach is a favorite of Rusch’s, and one you see growing rampantly along the nearby coastline. Its leaves and soft stems can be used like spinach, in salads or stir-fried, or fermented and pickled, and is similar to another garden crop, kinkelbossie. Veldkool is a plant whose young buds make a substantial vegetable that can be cooked in many ways. Decades ago, culinary scholar Louis Leipoldt wrote about its potential as a commercial crop, which remains untapped. Like sandkool, it produces asparagus-like buds with an earthy flavor that marry well with wild sage or rosemary.

There is sout slaai, which Rusch says is great in a green gazpacho, salsa or tempura, and dune celery, also known as sea parsley, with a bold flavour that does well in soups, stews or pickles.

These plants and their tastes will need acceptance, but Rusch, who is closely involved with the Slow Food Youth Movement in South Africa, is an ardent believer in young people and their ability to just “get up and do things, as well as try new things.” It’s clear that commercialization of these plants could contribute towards creating more sustainable South African communities.

“I really hope that ordinary people like you and me will one day be dropping a bunch of locally grown wild vegetables into our shopping bags to serve to our family at dinner,” she says. “It really isn’t too farfetched an idea, I don’t think. The climate for this kind of shift in habits is right.”