I've heard it said that many Japanese try to eat thirty different foods a day and one hundred and fifty a week. The Chinese approach to food as medicine similarly emphasises a wide range of foods to ensure adequate nutrition. Our Elizabethan ancestors were said to eat nearly three hundred and fifty different plants though we are taught solely about nobles eating sides of beef. All over the world 'primitive' people once stayed alive by eating an amazingly wide range of different foods so by comparison our modern diet is rather restricted.
Now in our sophisticated (sic-look up the dictionary meaning!) world many people live on the 'ready made' foods so easily available and constantly pushed by advertising. These are made of only a few ingredients from a very few commercial crops. (Try this game for kids of any age- each person brings a commercial food product concealed in a bag and reads out the ingredients -everyone else has to try and guess just what that item is)
Of course the impression is given that we are offered an ever expanding range of novel and allegedly 'good for us' foods but there are few actual distinct sources; the variety is created by simply remixing the cheapest bulk ingredients in different ways. And although at first glance the fresh produce shelves and counters seem to be stocked with 'new' exotica in fact most of these have been available since trade first started internationally. Almost every fruit and vegetable on offer now was available to the Victorian household. (Read an early Mrs Beeton and you find recipes for papaws, guavas, Loquats and even kangaroo meat!) Indeed raisins, figs, dates, ginger, and later lemons, have been imported for so long they've featured heavily in recipes from the Roman period to the present day. About the only widely successful 'modern' introduction is the Kiwi which has been popular in the East for millennia, almost everything else 'exotic' has been here since just after Columbus.
The food industry also likes to vaunt the way a few fresh fruits and vegetables are 'now' available all year round instead of only in season. So strawberries, cherries and French beans are air-freighted from hotter countries so we may eat them in our winter. Yet read the magazines of the early nineteenth century and these same fruits and vegetables were on sale in the streets for almost as many months before, and after their true season.
By growing in pots and under cover almost all crops were once had almost all year round. The Emperor Tiberius demanded a cucumber every day on pain of death for failure! Queen Victoria's gardeners had to be able to produce four pounds of strawberries at a couple of days notice any day year round and only feared for their jobs. Locally grown pineapples were sold in every market of the mid-nineteenth century, admittedly forced with stoves heated by coal but probably still saving a lot of food miles in the process. The poor may have lived on bread and gruel but the prosperous always had a wider choice of foods.
Even so we have a very limited number of actual vegetables and as few distinct fruits. Although a vast number of plant bits are edible only a minuscule portion have been developed to where you actually would eat a portion; literally, as with peas, carrots, beans etc., or with apples, pears, mangoes and grapes and so on. The vast majority of alternative esculents have never been improved or even cultivated thus they are effectively inedible to the modern palate.
Size is not a drawback compared to tough textures or bitter taste, and much of successful cultivation has thus been of ridding crops of their burden of strong tasting chemicals. Celery was too bitter to be used other than medicinally till five hundred years ago when selective breeding and improved culture started it on course to becoming so bland you hardly notice it. However although the acceptability may be improved in the process the nutrition may be reducing proportionately. Thus those crops we do eat are likely less nutritious than their wild ancestors, even if we do not leave aside the contentious issue of their method of cultivation such as chemical or organic.
Now most of us interested in the Kitchen Garden are growing foods for home consumption where we probably consider their effect on our health, but sensibly will probably be concentrating on growing predominantly some various favourites. Many of us will try an assortment of varieties over the years but apart from the occasional 'new introduction' few radically different crops are often grown. Kitchen Gardeners are inherently conservative, we may have a flurry of enthusiasm for the novel initially but most of us settle down to a routine selection that suits us best. Indeed although we may consider our diet healthy as it consists of a lot of fresh foods these may well be rather limited in number thus inadvertently creating some nutritional imbalance. If we just ate stinging nettle soup a couple of times in spring we might give our systems a boost but instead we eat only the usual crops we always do.
Now, as I have stated in previous articles, the commonplace is widely grown because it is both reliably successful and acceptable to the cook and family. The rare is almost always so because it is either difficult or unreliable to grow or offers too little advantage in flavour or texture to the more mundane. Thus of all the unusual edible roots I have grown none is worth considering in competition with the carrot. Given space a parsnip or Swede is sufficiently different, and productive enough, to be worth growing -but probably not if you have to give up carrots to do so. Salsify, skirret, Hamburg parsley and scorzonera are just not in the running.
However if we look at the wider nutritive value instead of the culinary many of the roots offer a very different range of nutrients to the carrot. Admittedly few things can beat the carrot in it's vitamin value especially -but they can offer scarce nutrients the carrot can't. And this is the rub, although we may get the most benefit from carrots we could get a better spread if we ate other roots, as well or even in substitution.
Thus although we may grow good virtuous fresh food and thus eat fairly healthily on it we are not anywhere near optimising the value to ourselves. Now I am not suggesting any fanatical diet or lifestyle change but merely that widening the number of various plants consumed will ensure a better nutrition for us rather effortlessly. Cole slaw is good for you and it only contains four plants, it really ought to be forty. So to reiterate if we are getting enough of our basic nutrition to satisfy the usual criterion we will likely be even better served if we can get it from a wider number of sources as then we also may get more of other rarer nutrients such as trace elements.
But, as I said and this is the important bit, the alternatives are not tasty. The very fact that they are packed full of something gives them a strong taste. For example the wild comfrey is invariably unpleasant to eat as it is high in potash, exactly the reason it survives anyway as even the bunnies don't like it, however if you wanted to add potassium to your diet a small bit of comfrey could add it in a reasonably assimilable form with little chance of an overdose (have you tasted comfrey!). (NB comfrey can not be recommended as a food as it has been fitted up with charges of being unhealthy if fed in quantity to rats)
So to happily eat a wider variety we either have to adapt the plants by cultivation or preparation to reduce their flavour such as with the common dandelion, or piss-in-bed as the French translates. This does indeed have a very bitter taste and diuretic properties, but we have learnt to blanch the leaves and fry them with bacon so they become tasty and then we benefit from their very nutritious properties. Alternatively we must learn to use the strongest tastes in moderation as with the aromatic herbs. Many herbs are unpleasant, even poisonous as with rue, in quantity but eaten as flavourings with other blander foods they are widely acceptable and we can get the benefit of their unusual constitutions.
And this latter method seems to me the most practical route to improving our nutrition. Especially as so many potentially health giving plant bits are strong tasting leaves which could only be used in bulk as a revolting spinach. Rather than decrease the potential nutrition by reducing the taste we must learn to either like the taste or mask it. And the easiest way to do that is to use the plant in question in small amounts and more frequently.
Thus I have developed three ways of getting more of a great number of diverse esculents, most of which we already grow but seldom use, into my diet without disturbing it much overall; my salad, my toast topping and the juice.
The Salad. This varies according to the season, and indeed by the week. The general principle is that a vast number of different plants in small amounts blend to make an acceptable flavour even though each is too strong individually. So I go out with a bowl and scissors (you can gather and wash if you wish but I believe in a peck of dirt..) I cut and shred as I go and add successively to the bowl a small amount of the tenderest growths and flowers of whatever is available, and known to be edible; rosemary, sages, thymes, mints, angelica, parsley, tarragon, oregano, marjoram, savoury, sweet Cicely, fennel, celery, garlic chives, basil, nasturtiums, Turkish rocket, Good King Henry, Shungi-ku edible chrysanthemum, coriander, Claytonia Miner's lettuce, lamb's lettuce, plus even smaller amounts of lemon balm, lemon verbena, young citrus leaves, Monarda bergamot, lavender, tiny beetroot leaves and radish pods, then very very small amounts of comfrey, rue, bay, hedge garlic, horseradish, wormwood, lovage, bay and hyssop ( I eat these but I do not recommend you eat this last group for legal reasons), then I sprinkle in borage, pansy, violet, primrose, cowslip, chamomile, dead nettle, day lily, hibiscus, daisy and pot marigold petals, courgette flowers, and masses of rose petals, -then handfuls of chervil, rocket, cress, mustard, dill, chives, lettuce leaves, alpine strawberries, peas, Japanese wineberries, grated cucumber, apple, carrot, beet, kohl rabi and finely shredded cabbage. As many of these as are findable are gathered and well mixed together with a little dressing; believe me it's fantastic.
The toast topping. This is much the same as my salad above except the bulkier ingredients at the end such as cabbage are much reduced in proportionate quantity and the chives are much increased and augmented with raw onion and or garlic. The toast topping is held together with mayonnaise, grated cheese, tomato ketchup, Worcester sauce and chopped soft boiled eggs before serving on buttered toast. It could be served with the salad but that might be over doing it.
The juice. Essentially the same as the salad but increasing the apple, carrot, beetroot and cabbage content and adding in some tomatoes makes it more juicy and easier to push through my juicer. It's still too strong to sip but can be quaffed down.
So by simply adding one or more of the above a couple of times a week to my existing diet I can obtain an amazing spread of nutrition but without enduring too much gerbil fodder. Too say nothing of the occasional meal of the more unusual fruits and vegetables we can all grow.