Sketchbook Snapshot: Lunch Biodiversity

20170101_lunch sketch_cr.jpg
walnut, broccoli, carrot, radish, onion, swiss chard

First, a quick bit of context:

I’m curating the @IAmSciArt account on Twitter this week. And, a week dedicated to #sciart conversations with the friendly and creative folks of the interwebs strikes me as a fantastic way to kick off 2017.

So far today, we’ve discussed SciArt-related time management and habits, such as scheduling time to regularly sketch or explore a new media like relief printing or painting with Quink. And, since I recommended quick and informal sketching as a good way to maintain a daily sketching habit, I figured I’d sketch my lunch.

grilled cheese sandwich + salad

Playing the Plant GastroDiversity Game

In a bit of a punt to make lunch relate to science somehow, I’ve tapped into the Plant GastroDiversity Game.* The general rule is to see how many plant families you can eat in a given period of time. I’ve pared the game down to investigating what was in the lunch I ate.

The Plant GastroDiversity Game is an idea from Stephen B. Heard (of the delightful Scientist Sees Squirrel blog and @StephenBHeard). I hope he’ll comment on all this, and point me to even better resources for figuring out how biodiverse a sandwich and salad might be.

A rough sense of where my lunch ingredients originated (geographically).

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve come up with: 10 distinct plant families in a deceptively simple lunch.*

First, I’ve organized the ingredients by date order, according to approximately when they came into common use as a food item. This doesn’t quite jive with Stephen Heard’s evolutionary history angle, but it’s another interesting way to think about diversity and history.

  • Wheat in the sourdough bread (~10,000 BC): Poacea (Triticum spp.). I found a public domain article called “Wheat” (Shewry, Journal of Experimental Botany, 2009) that has loads of info about the history and life history of the plant. The history of bread making is totally fascinating, as curated by Lynn Olver of And, here’s wheat’s ‘official’ breakdown from the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS).
  • 20170101_lunch-sketch_walnutWalnuts (~7,000 BC): Juglandaceae (Junglans spp.) Apparently, there are a lot of walnut species, and the main ones we might eat are the English/Persian walnut (J. regia) and the black walnut (J. nigra) from eastern North America. See the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL; J. regiaJ. nigra) and ITIS for more info on both species.
  • Lettuce (~5,000 BC): Asteraceae (Latuca sativa) Lettuce is an aster!!!! That is so fun to know! It’s also one of my lunch ingredients I grow every year. I like to source seeds from FedCo, a seed company in Maine. I like FedCo’s ethics, attention to detail, and their catalog makes great reading and is full of vintage illustrations. Of equal importance, is their extensive offering of cold-hardy seeds, which are essential for gardening where I do, at 7,200 feet in elevation! Here’s lettuce’s ITIS profile
  • Dill cucumber pickles (~5,000 BC/1,000 BC): Cucurbitaceae (Cucumis sativus) is thought to have originated in India around 5,000 BC, and folks there started pickling cucumbers around 1,000 BC. According to Olver’s Food Timeline, though, some versions of fermented pickles have been around since Ancient Egypt. Here’s an EOL overview  and here’s the ITIS info.
  • 20170101_lunch-sketch_onionOnion (~3,000 BC):  Amaryllidaceae (Allium cepa) Species of edible alliums appear to be native to several regions internationally. And, they were widely used as early as Ancient Egypt, per Food Timeline (FT). Many cultures appear to have revered onions, garlic, and ramps, due to their shape, layers, and potent smells. Here are the ITIS and EOL profiles.
  • 20170101_lunch-sketch_radish-carrotCarrots (~3,000 BC): Apiaceae (Daucus carota sativa) Originating in Afghanistan (according to FT), it appears that carrots have, for most of their history, been used for their edible leaves and seeds, not for their roots. Early carrots were dark red, and even purple, and orange carrots as we know them weren’t developed until the 1600s. Here are the ITIS and EOL profiles.
  • Olive oil (2,500 BC): Oleaceae (Olea europaea) might actually have been in use as a foodstuff as early as 10,000 years ago, according to EOL. It was pretty late coming to North America, and even then, for a long time, was almost exclusively used by English and French for salad dressing; only elite Spaniards used it in cooking. ITIS profile here.
  • 20170101_lunch-sketch_radish-carrotRadishes (2,000 BC): Brassicaceae (Raphanus raphanistrum) According to a FT source, “Radishes were so highly valued by the ancient Greeks that small replicas of them were made in gold.” And supposedly, the plant’s taxonomic name is derived from Latin and Greek words meaning “root” and “easily reared.” Radishes are definitely that – they are one of the earliest plants that sprout in my garden each spring, and they require very little care. ITIS and EOL profiles.
  • Lemons (1200s):  Rutaceae (Citrus x limon) Said to have originated in north India, lemon arrived late on the European scene. It’s name is thought to be a convolution of the Chinese name for it (limung) transformed through Arabic (li mum) and through Spanish and Russian (both limon) into English’s lemon. ITIS and EOL profiles.
  • 20170101_lunch-sketch_broccoliBroccoli (1699): Brassicaceae (Brassica oleraceaAccording to EOLB. oleracea is actually a wild cabbage which has been modified over time to produce a suite of now-relatively common vegetables including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale. FL cites research indicating brassicas have been eaten since ~6,000 BC, although broccoli was not widely used outside of Italy until the late 1600s. ITIS profile here.
  • 20170101_lunch-sketch_swiss-chardSwiss chard (no date): Amaranthaceae (Beta vulgaris) Swiss chard is a variety of beet/beetroot developed specifically for its large leaves. It is another cold-hardy staple in my home garden. Interestingly, the red beets we think of now weren’t developed until the 1700s. The plant evidently originates from a sea beet which lives in Mediterranean tide zones. ITIS profile
Dill pickle!

*I probably could have deconstructed the sourdough bread further, and maybe there’s identifiable plant material in the cheese and/or butter of the sandwich. And I didn’t figure out what all was in the salad dressing. My husband and mother-in-law prepped lunch, so I just took it at face value. 🙂



2 Replies to “Sketchbook Snapshot: Lunch Biodiversity”

  1. So happy to see my post helped spark this very fun salad deconstruction! The idea of tracking age of cultivation and geographic origin is neat. I especially like the latter. Your salad, for example, is geographically pretty broad, but could be broadened with a southern African ingredient…

    I think you’ve found the main tools I used – ITIS gives you a pretty definitive ruling on species names and plant families. For those wanting to go beyond counting plant families, I show how to account for years of evolutionary history in this other post:

    When we played the Plant Gastrodiversity Game, we spent a fair bit of time roaming the aisles of our supermarket and (even better) a global-foods store. We tried out a few really new things (for us), like ogbono seed (Irvingiaceae), an African soup thickener that I would never have come across otherwise. It was great fun!

    1. Stephen, thanks for your reply!

      You know, I wasn’t even thinking of aiming for geographic diversity until I started digging into origins after having lunch. It would be a really neat way to design an interdisciplinary lesson/exploration, though…have folks/students bring an ingredient for a salad (or maybe a pizza?). Put it all together, and while eating, do research to map out geographic, culinary timeline, and evolutionary (time?) diversity from your work. Then, once everyone’s hooked, a discussion about how to further diversify, with a scheduled follow-up session to deliberately create as diverse a meal as possible.

      Thanks for the link to your blog explaining how to get beyond plant families to the evolutionary timeline. I knew I was missing something, but had forgotten just what. 🙂

      I really love, in general, the idea of using food to think about the world and history in these multi-disciplinary ways. I majored in sustainable food & ag + natural history + art as an undergrad, and so finding ways to synthesize all those interests is really exciting for me.

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