Saturday, September 18, 2010

Will Tweet for Food

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA -- The most important seed bank in the world is currently endangered by real estate developers. A Twitter campaign has won a temporary reprieve for the seed bank, but more help is needed. The future of humankind could be at stake. No joke.

Here's the story. The Pavlovsk Experimental Station was founded in 1927 by the brilliant botanist and plant geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov (my secret crush), with the goal of collecting a large amount of plant genetic material to better feed Russia and the rest of the world. Vavilov traveled the world collecting plants while developing a theory on the origins of cultivated crop plants that is still important to botanists, crop scientists, plant geographers, and ethnobotanists. Vavilov carefully chose the location for its soil and climate because it is a living seed bank. The seeds are "grown out" to keep the strains alive and grow the collection. If seeds aren't grown out, the DNA will eventually 

Nikolai Vavilov

die. Vavilov invented the very idea of seed banks. There are now more than 1,000 seed banks around the world, but Pavlovsk is the most important one, because it has more seeds than anyone of all types of plants. It is especially important for its collection of 5,000 types of fruits and berries, 90% of which are extinct, except for the collections at Vavlosk Station. 

Under Stalin, Vavilov himself was persecuted and imprisoned. His crime was that he was more loyal to science than to politics and that he was from the bourgoisie. His parents were merchants, and he was an educated person. A high crime, indeed. He also criticized Stalin's favorite scientist. whose views regarding evolution turned out to be dead wrong. In 1940, Staling imprisoned Vavilov for these "crimes".  Three years later, Vavilov died in prison, of malnutrition.  Eventually, he was vindicated. The government even issued a postage stamp in his honor. 

The scientists who work at Vavlosk Station have always been deeply committed to their work. By the time Vavilov was imprisoned, he and his colleagues had already collected seeds from more than 200,000 plant varieties. During WWII, while Vavilov languished in prison, the scientists at Pavlovsk continued their work. Even during the 900-day siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg was called Leningrad during the Soviet era), the scientists heroically managed to keep Pavlovsk Station's work alive. Twelve of the scientists starved to death during the siege, surrounded by edible plants and seeds. They refused to eat their work. 

Rare berries at Pavlovsk

Pavlovsk has already saved the world, in a sense. After a drought in Ethiopia, and war in the Balkans wiped out crops, seeds from Pavlovsk helped farmers plant new crops to feed the populace.  In future years, with the threat of global climate change, the old crops may fail, and genetic material from seed banks such as Pavlovsk will be needed to find new crops that will thrive under different climatic conditions. Ironically enough, it's already happening. Russia is currently undergoing a terrible drought that has killed off most of the wheat crop. Already, Prime Minister Putin has issued an order to stop all wheat exports from Russia. It's time to plant the winter wheat, and farmers are trying to do so in dry soil with no promise of rain. The crop scientists at Pavlovsk, with their enormous seed collection, might be able to find a strain of wheat that can thrive in the new dry conditions. 

But Pavlovsk itself is threatened with extinction. It's a story worthy of Kafka himself. Pavlovsk Experimental Station is owned by the Russian government, on government-owned land. And even though it is the original seed bank and the most important seed bank in the world, the Russian government has refused to do the paperwork necessary to make it part of the global network of seed banks. The budget has been cut almost every year. 

Because of the budget cuts, Pavlovsk has been forced to lay people off, and the once-beautiful gardens have deteriorated. The important plants are still healthy and robust, but there are also a lot of weeds and a generally unkempt look about the place. The government that cut the budget now says that "obviously" the people who work there just don't care about the place. Nothing could be further from the truth.  They just don't have the money for such frills as paying for gardeners to do the weeding. 

Enter the Department of Housing. Now, housing is a big deal in Russia, and the Pavlovsk Experimental Station happens to be on some prime real estate (which was not the case when it was first established. It was out in the countryside.)  The government wants to turn the land over to a real estate developer to build luxury housing. The value of Pavlovsk is irrelevant to these people. In terms of the value of a priceless seed bank, here is their response, (loosely translated)--  "If it is priceless, that means one cannot set a price. So priceless is the same as worthless. It has no value. It has no worth."  I told you. Kafka-esque. 

The Department of Housing said that Pavlovsk Station could be moved. The scientists say that would take ten years, because of the mature living plants in the collection. Luckily, there is a strong connection between Pavlovsk and Kew Botanical Gardens, near London, England. The scientists at Kew put out the call. In response, the Global Crop Diversity Trust started a Twitter campaign to save Pavlovsk. Over 30,000 tweets were sent, and one week later, President Medvedev tweeted back! Pavlosvsk was given a one month reprieve, and Medvedev called for an investigation. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Steppin' Out

Blogging, like most writing,  can be a lonely thing. You sit staring at the computer screen and wonder if anyone is out there -- if anyone will read your digital scribbling. 

But then I attended the Food Blog Forum yesterday. It's not lonely at all. It's a cyber-community. There's ALWAYS someone to "talk" to. 

This was the first time I had come out of my shell since starting The Culinary Historian a few months ago. The forum was held at The Shed on Glenwood, a new restaurant in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Atlanta. There was plenty of parking,  as most of the surrounding buildings are empty or under construction. 

One hundred other food bloggers were crammed like sardines into the too-small space, perched on the hardest little wooden chairs many of us had enjoyed in a long time. But the speakers were knowledgeable and engaging and it was wonderful to spend a day in the company of such an interesting group. 

The main speaker was Jaden Hair, of  Jaden  de-mystified blogging and shared what it takes to be a successful blogger.  In the last session of the day, she just sat in a chair and talked about her experience, what she has learned, and what works. She had no PowerPoint, no visual aids. She just sat and talked and answered questions. I learned a lot. 

The main thing that I came away with was that a good blog is entertaining and has useful information. A cooking blog is a good example and most of the other bloggers had cooking blogs. They put up cute pictures of their kids and share a recipe or two. 

I wondered, how does The Culinary Historian fit into this paradigm? My aim is to have a blog that is thoughtful and informative. But is it useful? Is it entertaining to anyone but me? 

So, dear readers (and I only have a small idea how many of you are even out there), please tell me. Should The Culinary Historian be funnier? Have more pictures of food? Offer recipes? If it has recipes, should they be old and historic or fresh and new for today's cooks? 

I really want to know and will take action based on your comments and suggestions (Jaden refers to this as "community driven"). If you don't want to comment publicly you can send me an email at

I'm hoping to hear from A LOT of people! Thanks! 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

From Cannonballs to Coffeepots

Benjamin Thompson, a/k/a Count Rumford

First, a digression. We Americans value niceness. In our culture, it is just as important to be nice as to be good. It is not enough to do the right thing, to simply be honest and charitable. We also should be really nice. In our books and movies, the good guy is nice and pleasant. The bad guy is rude and mean. 

It is not so in all cultures.  Some years back, I attended a seminar at the East West Center in Honolulu. Most of my fellow attendees were Asian, while the instructors were American. In private, my comrades grumbled that the instructors seemed cloying and insincere. "If they have something to say," one remarked after a round of class presentations, "They should just say it." The instructors were all-American. They smiled a lot when they spoke to the class and criticism was preceded with a compliment. The Asians hated it.

In another example, before a trip to France I read up on French culture, and was struck by the separation of helpfulness from niceness. This is a problem for the French when working with American tourists, because in the French view, it is not necessary to be nice in order to he helpful. But Americans often come away from encounters with tour guides, hotel clerks, train conductors and the like feeling like they've been assaulted. Although they might have been given good information and treated fairly, the tourists didn't get the smiley face and have-a-nice-day attitude that Americans expect. 

I guess that's why I'm so fascinated with the man who started the first school lunch program for poor children. He was an amazing person -- an inventor, an innovator, a man who did many things for the betterment of society. But he was not nice. His biographers use words like "despicable" to describe him. 
Benjamin Thompson Birthplace

Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, in a home that is now a museum listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. His father, a farmer, died before little Benjamin reached the age of two. The boy was educated in the village school and soon realized that farming was not for him. He had a mind for science and studied hard. He even walked to Cambridge to attend lectures at Harvard College by the distinguished mathematician and physicist, John Winthrop. He became a teacher, and moved to Concord, New Hampshire (formerly called Rumford) to accept a teaching position in 1772. There, he met and married a wealthy widow who was 14 years older than him -- and he instantly gained the wealth and status that he craved. 

When the Revolution started, he took the side of the British. The local populace suspected that he was a British spy (which he was) and when an angry mob came after him, he fled, abandoning his wife and child, forever. He moved to Boston, where he continued his spy activities and recruited people to the British cause, until he joined the British evacuation of Boston in 1776. 

In London, he conducted experiments on gunpowder and continued his scientific studies with guns and cannons.  For his service to the crown, he was knighted. He became famous within military circles for his work with gunpowder and munitions, and in 1783, accepted the position of Major-General and Privy Counselor to the Elector of Bavaria. He moved to Munich. 
Thompson's illustration of his cannon-boring experiments

During his travels in Europe, he met an elderly lady who had a strong influence on him. All that is known of her is in one line of a letter that he wrote, that this unnamed woman "opened my eyes to other kinds of glory than that of victory in battle."  

After meeting this woman, he devoted the rest of his life to the betterment of mankind.  He stayed in Bavaria for five years and became a pioneer in the Social Reform Movement. One of the many good things he did there was found the Poor People's Institute, which provided food and work for the poor. He also started a school for poor children, which included lunch. This place was not paradise. Everyone was expected to work. And the food was basically a soup made of potatoes, peas and barley (giving rise to the term "soup kitchen").  Funding was always an issue, and Thompson learned as much as was known about nutrition in order to provide healthful, but budget-conscious meals. 
Monument to Count Rmford in the English Garden, Munich

He became famous throughout Europe for his work, and the governments of England, Germany, France, Scotland, and Switzerland consulted with him to set up similar programs.
While in Bavaria, he also came up with work programs for idle soldiers, set up the English Garden in Munich, started a veterinary school, and convinced farmers to start growing nutritious foods, such as turnips and potatoes, which, up to that time, were suspected as poisonous.

In his quest for ever more efficient ways to prepare food, he invented such things as: the double boiler, the kitchen range, the fireless cooker, the percolator, and the pressure cooker. In recognition of his achievements, he was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. He took on the title Count Rumford, in honor of the town in New Hampshire where his fortunes changed. 

Where would we be without the percolator?
After five years in Munich, his patron died, and, having no other friends, probably on account of his abrasive personality, he returned to London. There, he ran another feeding program, serving 60,000 meals per day. He also continued inventing things that made people's lives better. The most famous of these is the Rumford Fireplace, which made him extremely wealthy in his own right. 

The peripatetic count moved one more time – to Paris, where he lived out his life still conducting research into the nature of heat and light. In physics circles, he is remembered as the Father of Thermodynamics. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, died in Paris in 1814. He left the bulk of his estate to Harvard College.

This article, although way too long by blogging standards, barely scratches the surface of the story of Count Rumford. Saint or sinner? You decide.