Maybe I've just been reading too much Michael Pollan, but now as I look at the vast array of products in the supermarket, I see a whole lot of sameness. Two big grains, corn and wheat, in every product that contains flour (which counts for the majority of snack foods and processed foods), with a smattering of rice, rye, and barley. A half-dozen kinds of dry beans: "white," "kidney," "pinto," "black," "garbanzo," and sometimes, "black-eyed peas." Fruits? Apples, pears, oranges, peaches, nectarines, grapes, cherries, melons -- now we seem to be getting somewhere, as we add in the veggies: lettuce, carrots, celery, beets, turnips, chard, cabbage, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, peppers, squash, potatoes... and yet...and yet...
I've been reading a book I found at a used book store some time ago, Kitchen Gardening in America by David M. Tucker. It's out of print, alas, but it's not too hard to find used. I have a bit of a beef with the section where he describes most Native American practices as being based in "magic" (as though wise elder women couldn't figure out a more earthbound explanation of why ashes or fish made corn grow better), but otherwise it's an interesting history of gardening in America, looking at both Native American and European roots.
Native people who farmed, as many gardeners know, grew the plants that have come to be called the "three sisters": corn, squash, and beans. They also grew sunflowers for the seeds and Jerusalem artichokes for the nutritious tubers. These, with the addition of meat that the men brought in from the forest, formed the staples of the diet of many native groups. The staples, mind -- for while the women tended the fields throughout the year, they didn't have to work at it daily. They spent a good deal of their time in the forest, too, not hunting as the men did, but gathering forest and meadow plants. Nations of the eastern seaboard gathered something near two hundred different wild plants for food, including greens, roots, and berries.
Nearly two hundred. That makes the selection in the produce section look downright puny.
Turning to the European tradition, the same book lists a 17th century recipe for mutton stew that includes violet leaves, endive, succory (a relative of endive, it seems -- I had to look that one up), strawberry leaves, spinach, calendula flowers, green onions, and oatmeal. Lots of greens that we no longer consider food went into the pot, some simply for food value, some that were considered preventative medicine. The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg lists many more: dandelions, Alexanders, nettle, mallow, wood sorrel, betony, daisies, dead nettle, rockets, rampion... the list goes on and on.
Here I thought I was being wild and crazy when I ordered seeds for purple carrots and Flashy Trout's Back lettuce.
The advantage to eating a wider selection of foods is that so many foods have so many different pigments and other interesting substances that we lump under the generic heading of "phytonutrients": beta carotene, anthocyanins, lycopenes, lignins, various vitamins, and a whole lot more and even more yet to be discovered. The broader your range of foods, the more likely you'll take in the range of phytonutrients that will keep you in the best of health.
Those Medieval ladies who threw strawberry leaves and violets in the pot had something good going.
Good seed catalogs that carry heirloom vegetables often list lots of interesting, little-known vegetables not found at the supermarket. Not just different varieties, but entirely different vegetables from different gardening traditions. Next season I plan to delve into some of those, as well as look into cultivating patches of some of the native plants from my area that used to feed the people who lived here long before my ancestors came. With a degree in botany, I know enough to distinguish the edible from the poisonous. I already have Siberian Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia sibirica) in the yard. There's a start.
As for the camas (Camassia quamash) bulbs that the Kalapuya people in my area used to harvest -- doggone but the bulbs for sale in the catalogs are too expensive to eat. I'll just have to wait until my camas patch gets bigger.