“Hey, Hawaii guy!” he calls to me from across a kitchen that is bustling yet moving with the precision, intention, collaboration, and beauty of an orchestra. “You gotta come over here and taste this! You’ve never had anything like this before—it’s packed with flavor and incredibly sweet!” He exclaims with childlike excitement. “Yes, chef!” This unique taste had been in the works since the 1980s but wasn’t fully realized until it found itself the subject of interest for a plant breeder from Cornell University’s Department of Integrative Plant Science and a visionary chef.
The Incredible, Edible Honeynut Squash
A Hybrid Effort of World-Class Chefs, Top-Level Scientists, and Farmers
In the crisp autumn air of 2014, among a rainbow of changing leaves on what was once the picturesque, historic Rockefeller farm estate, the culinary team of Blue Hill @ Stone Barn Farms sat together for their daily family meal. The grandiose estate, now the Stone Barn Center for Food and Agriculture (a non-profit farm and educational facility), is also home to one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Chef and co-owner Dan Barber is a Michelin-starred and internationally awarded chef who is not only a culinary master, but a respected innovator and leader in the area of improving our current food systems. His efforts range from the actual genes of the seeds, soil health, sustainability, and nutrition to perception of the value of vegetables (he pioneered vegetable-forward cuisine and the elimination of food waste in fine dining), food security, and, of course, flavor. Chef Barber addresses the team daily with something educational and inspiring, and that fall day in 2014 did not disappoint as he explained to us how he; Jack Algier, farm manager for Stone Barn Farms; and Michael Mazourek, plant breeder and scientist from Cornell University had finally achieved success on the intensely flavorful and sweet honeynut squash.
Mazourek, who had already been working on this hybrid squash, was on a tour of the farm and kitchen at Blue Hill in 2009. Chef Dan Barber grabbed a butternut squash and said to Mazourek, “If you’re such a good breeder, why don’t you make this thing taste good? Why don’t you shrink the thing?!” The challenge resulted in a smaller squash that was deliberately bred for flavor and nutrition first, rather than for putting yield/profits above all else. For Chef Barber this was not a new concept, as he had already been working with scientists from the University of Washington in the development of a wheat with similar qualities. Eventually patented as Barber Wheat, it has concentrated flavor/nutrition, the ability to be grown in a way that preserves healthy soil, and produces high enough yield ratios for farmers to be interested.
In 2013, just one year before my inside access, sneak taste, Barber presented the honeynut at the G9 gastro-summit—an exclusive gathering of the world’s elite chefs. Containing A and B vitamins, potassium, zinc, three times the amount of beta-carotene as its ancestor (the butternut squash), and being intensely delicious, this little gem debuted as a rockstar—the chefs’ response was incredible! In 2015, seeds for production of the honeynut became available to farmers across the northeast and today, you can find farms throughout the U.S. (including SWFL) growing the delicious and amazing honeynut squash. Honeynuts are readily available to consumers in many locations, from farmers’ markets to markets such as Whole Foods, Costco, Blue Apron, etc.—a feat in large part due the work of Barber and Mazourek, who helped found Row 7 Seed Co., a new “hybrid-minded” seed company that is pioneering the future of food security in a manner that is both sustainable and quite flavorsome.
7,500 Years in the Making
“OG” Plant Breeding + Genetic Selection and Development
Calabazas (pumpkins and other varietals of squash) are among the oldest cultivated foods in the Americas. Predating corn and tomatoes, archeologists have documented seeds from domesticated pumpkins/squash in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico, dating back to 4500 B.C. As with the better-known story of corn, our modern pumpkins (and cousins) started off humbly with a small, slightly bitter, dense fleshy fruit (technically not a vegetable) that was nutritious and kept well over the cold winter months. What would the ancient indigenous Meso-Americans, who first cultivated these “OG” (original) calabazas, think if they could see the 2000+ pound monsters of today’s pumpkin-growing competitions?
What the OG cultivators of domesticated plants were doing several millennia ago, Row 7 is doing similarly today. It starts with cross pollination, sexing flowers, and selecting desired traits. Without diving too deep into taxonomy, botany, and genetics, we simply need to understand that two flowering plants of the same botanical species can be cross pollinated to form a hybrid (this can even happen randomly in nature). As opposed to modern GMOs (which often involves work at the cellular level, splicing unrelated cross species DNA to form a new organism), this form of breeding is done in the most fundamental of ways.
The process begins by identifying two related subspecies with the basic traits you’re looking for, then identifying the male and female flowers (some species will also produce hermaphroditic flowers, which you can disregard for cross breeding). A stamen presents on the male flowers and looks basically how you might imagine the male sex part of a flower to look. On the female flowers, you will find a pistil (containing the ovaries of the flower), which appears as a small, round bulb in the center of the flower. Once you’re done playing matchmaker and your guy and gal flowers on the target plants are in full bloom, you will simply help them to connect in that special way—turn on the soft jazz, light some candles, and proceed; cut the male flower about 2” down the stem and very gently insert the stamen into the center of female flower until it makes contact with the pistil. Gently rub it around until you’re sure its pollen has covered the female flower’s pistil. Repeat with multiple pairs. When these flowers develop into matured fruit, you now have a new genetic hybrid. Find the fruits that contain the strongest of the target traits, and save and grow these seeds. Next, look for the fruits from this new plant that have the most pronounced of the target characteristics, and again save and grow these seeds. Repeating this process over several generations will cause these desired traits, such as size, color, drought/heat tolerance, flavor and nutrient profiles, etc., to become dominant.
With the sophistication, finesse, and efficiency of modern science, what might have taken a lifetime to do with something like the honeynut a hundred years ago, Row 7 is now accomplishing in less than a decade. Row 7, the “hybrid child” of Barber (chef) and Mazourek (scientist), connects seed breeders, farmers, chefs, consumers, and many others in the farm-to-table community with the goal of growing better food for a better future. Just as much as Row 7 strives to breed better-tasting food, they breed for nutritional properties. They know that healthy soil, biodiversity, ecological sustainability, nutritious and diverse diets, and food security can and should be interconnected.
Don’t F*ck with the Pumpkin Pie—A Reimagining of a Classic
The etymology of “pumpkin” starts with “pepon,” Greek for large melon. It later changed with the French to “pompon,” then with the English to “pumpion,” and eventually to the modern English word “pumpkin.” Round orange pumpkins and myriad culinary derivatives are an iconic part of autumn rituals among many cultures around the world. In fact, I’m a sucker for a pumpkin spice latte, and autumn flavors/seasonal ingredients are my favorite to work with as a chef.
”Don’t f*ck with the pumpkin pie…” My words, ten years ago, jokingly instructing my pastry chef. In many ways, I consider myself to be forward-thinking, dynamic chef rooted with a strong knowledge and appreciation for fundamentals and the classics. When prepping for a Thanksgiving brunch of 800 people, there are certain expectations. Nearly every dessert, classic or nouveau, we present in a mini/individual format with some type of twist. We find that guests enjoy a balance of the familiar/approachable with the “wow/flash!” of something new.
But what about the pumpkin pie? Certainly the version of this dessert we know and love was not there at Plymouth in 1621; most likely it was a quite healthy/simple dish of whole roasted or stewed pumpkin (and other similar squash varietals) with maple syrup, herbs, and spices. After another 150 years or so of baked sweets loosely related to what we know as “pumpkin pie,” we find in 1796 the first published record of a recipe for an egg/dairy based pumpkin custard flavored w/cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices baked in a flour crust. This became the “Classic American Pumpkin Pie” that we know and love. It so happens that this style of classic pumpkin pie, if executed really well, is one of my favorite desserts; hence, my instructions to leave the pumpkin pies alone and make the simple classic of spiced pumpkin custard baked in a flaky buttery crust.
A New Take on the Classic
This all leads us to today, to Chef Dan Barber, Row 7, the honeynut squash, and their influence on me. I’m not saying anything against a classic pumpkin pie done right, its taste, and its role in our culture and family traditions. I will always enjoy that version of the pie, but I truly believe there is room to reimagine another version. We face so many new realizations about the many challenges to our food systems, our global ecology, our personal food choices and health, and the need for advancements like the story of the honeynut. Having people like Barber and Mazourek leading the way to new foods that are ecologically and economically sustainable/regenerative, accessible, nutritious, and delicious keeps my hope and inspiration going, and it’s that inspiration that gives way to “pumpkin pie v.2.” Like any dessert that I would make, it starts with sound/thoughtful/deliberate technique; a high standard for top quality, holistically sustainable ingredients; and an unabashed use of flavor. Too often, food with “healthy ingredients” gets the bad rep of not tasting good, and that’s just wrong—it can and should taste great. Let’s not forget, it’s a dessert…a pie…inherently made with a proper amount of sugars and fats. However, the v.2 is made with the superstar descendant of those first humble calabazas—the honeynut. It’s a dessert that is 100% plant based + gluten free + nutritionally dense + sustainable; it’s a dessert that is delicious and eats as balanced, refined, and richly satisfying as anything you’d find in the world’s best kitchens.