give thought to where the tomato, apple or walnuts in their salad came from. Or
what grains gave rise to the wheat in their bread or barley in their beer. University
of Arizona ethnobotanist Nabhan was
intensely curious about these questions—and about the exploits of the man he
credits with first traveling the world to find the genetic birthplace of the
foods we depend upon.
Born in 1887, Nikolay Vavilov is known for creating the
world’s first major seed bank. To assemble that living genetic library, which
still survives in St. Petersburg, Russia,
he organized 115 research expeditions through some 64 countries and collected
seeds of food crops from five continents. For this book, Nabhan hiked in
Vavilov’s footsteps to many of the same centers of agricultural diversity.
Even up to 90 years after Vavilov’s journey, many spots
remain exotic and little changed. On the “roof of the world” in Tajikistan’s
Pamiri highlands, Nabhan saw where Vavilov acquired more than 200 seed
collections, including onions, wheats, lentils and chickpeas. In Italy’s
Po Valley, Nabhan saw the same olives, capers, grapes and salad greens that
impressed Vavilov. Trips also took Nabhan to Lebanon,
American Southwest and Mexico’s
Sierra Madre—which Vavilov called the mother lode of food biodiversity.
Equal parts travelog, biography and botanical history,
Nabhan breathes life into the exploits of Russia’s
Island Press, 2009, 223 p., $24.95