Table to Farm: Deborah Madison and “Vegetable Literacy”

Deborah Madison watched the farm-to-table revolution happen from the inside. Now Madison winces when I mention that phrase: farm to table.

In the 1970s Madison was at Green Gulch Farm, north of San Francisco, when Alice Waters came looking for produce: lettuce varieties like Rouge d’Hiver, blue borage flowers, sorrel—things you couldn’t buy in any produce market 35 years ago. Madison was opening chef of Greens (she wrote The Greens Cookbook, published in 1987). Now she lives in New Mexico and writes cookbooks. Vegetable Literacy, released earlier this spring, is her 11th.

Madison was in the Bay Area last month to promote the book. Over nearly 400 pages, it looks at 12 edible plant families (sunflowers, nightshades, legumes, and nine more). It feels sort of like a textbook, except with recipes and nice photos. Most of us know vegetables only from supermarkets. Even if we shop at farmers’ markets, we aren’t intimate with broccoli or mustard plants as they mature and flower and go to seed, the way the flavor changes over time. Madison had her epiphany thinking about chard stems in plants that had bolted. Normally they’d be cut down and end up on the compost pile. But Madison thought, Here’s a whole new food.

“Vegetables don’t always have to look a certain way to be edible, or even delicious,” she says. We’re talking in West Oakland, at a food garden tended by City Slicker Farms, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents plant edible gardens. (Produce harvested from the garden where we're talking is sold, on a sliding scale that starts at free.) Madison sees a raised bed of fava plants, all lush, silvery-green leaves.

Madison says they’re edible, then notices some sprays of yellow flowers: fava blossoms. “They’re really good. They have this burst of flavor that’s one of the fava plant’s treats.”

Eventually farm to table, that hated phrase, comes up.

“When I worked at Green Gulch Farm we felt like we were discovering so many things,” Madison says. “Fingerlings, herbs—people forget that these were new once. It was exciting to cook with them, to serve a salad of edible flowers—but ingredients have gone from the rarefied to food TV. Everybody’s cooking with them now.”

Madison says part of the impetus to write Vegetable Literacy was to move beyond the ingredients we see piled up in the produce department or at the farmers' market. To see the plants that produce them, and in different stages of growth. “If you shift your awareness to these food plants and what they are, and who they are, so much gets revealed to you.”

Farm to table: Madison seeks to reverse the narrative in Vegetable Literacy, to go from the table back to the farm, and get a second look at the delicious plants we take for granted.

Photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

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