Dan Barber:How do you find obscure plant varieties?

Author and Chef
Barber tells the surprising story of a native American polenta.
  • Transcript


Dan Barber: Our variety choice at, you know . . . of the things that we’re growing are basically dependent on what will grow well in our ecosystem again. So you know we’re basically getting seeds that either are from the same latitude around the world; or from seeds that we know have grown here in the past. I mean right now we’re growing a type of corn called ...corn. Now ...corn we did an experiment . . . Actually some guy . . . some crazy guy from North Carolina who’s obsessed with saving seeds paid us . . . paid our farmer Jack $2,000 to plant 75 of these . . . these corn . . . corn plants of ...corn. He said now it was . . . It was the most popular corn among the Native American Indians, and they used to prize it for its ability to dry and feed . . . feed the tribes during the . . . during the winter. And so Jack . . . And I was very skeptical if this would germinate at all. And in fact we got 99 percent germination and we got incredible corn. Now we harvested . . . And just like this is out of, you know . . . Like if you were to write this into a novel you would think, like, this was just not to be believed. But we harvested . . . The next day . . . The next day I’m reading this brochure from a very famous marketplace in actually Michigan that sells wholesale and retail around the country. And I open up to like the middle of the pamphlet and they say the most famous Italian ..., we now have it on sale ... from Italy. And “...” translates as ... corn. So it’s the Italians that recognized from the Indians this incredible corn that could make this unbelievable ...; took it from us; preserved it while we in the United States have completely lost it except really for the seeds that we had growing that ended up germinating. And there’s a little . . . He paid some other farmers to grow it and they didn’t really germinate well. But we are preserving what is our natural heritage in our natural ecology. I mean this is where I . . . Northeast was corn country for the Native Indians. And so the Italians recognized this, you know, hundreds and hundreds of years ago and have preserved it over these small family farms. So it’s one of those things. So now we grind our own .... It’s like back into the turn of the century. We’re like a little miller and we grind our own ..., and we make this unbelievably flavorful .... People cannot . . . People taste it and they like . . . They never tasted ... in their life, you know, when they’ve had this stuff. Now it’s really great ..., there’s no question. If I gave you a bowl right now you’d flip out it’s so good, because you’re really tasting things that have been hybridized out of it – flavors, and oils, and the germ and all that stuff that are incredible. But also, by the way, it’s more healthful. That’s another thing that I researched, is that in that germ, in those oils are a lot of micronutrients that are totally bred out over the course of generations. But I tell that story about this wacky dude who paid us $2,000, and the Native Americans, and _..., and the response in the dining room is as if you’ve just given them, you know, the secret to life, right? Because they’re tasting now all of a sudden . . . You know I mean they’re tasting Italy, and tradition, you know and all this stuff. And the tradition of Italy is based actually on America. It’s like all these things that just like . . . They totally drink the Kool-Aid right away, you know? So it’s great _..., there’s no question. But it’s much better because I have that story that we can relate to everybody, and that makes me look like a better chef, you know? Even my best days . . . I don’t lack an ego. I have an ego like the rest of the chefs. But I cannot cook as well as those stories can make people taste things they otherwise wouldn’t taste. It’s a kind of seasoning that’s just priceless. So I like to get more of those stories in self-interest because it makes my food taste better. Recorded on: 2/11/08