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A Global Vegetable Goes Local

Taioba, a leafy Brazilian vegetable, finds a new home off the coast of Massachusetts.

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It’s too bad I’m not a CIA operative, and my friend Ali Berlow a mole, because she is a source extraordinaire. She’s always calling me up at weird hours and leaving strange messages that direct me to appear at some mysterious place on the Vineyard. Once, as result, I wound up barely awake (and, more importantly, barely caffeinated) at 6:30 a.m. in the pouring, freezing rain, watching chickens get slaughtered. (Even  more strangely, I was really glad to be there).

So when Ali called a few weeks ago, the hair stood up on my arms. What would it be this time? All she said before hanging up was, “Meet me at Elio’s in 20 minutes.” And then something garbled that sounded like “Tabitha.”  “Wait, wait!” I thought. What’s Elio’s? Where’s Elio’s? Who’s Tabitha?”

Turns out Tabitha is actually taioba (tie-yo-bah), a leafy Brazilian vegetable. And Elio Silva is a charming fellow who runs a Brazilian market in Vineyard Haven. Once I found the market, I realized the excitement was surrounding dozens of taioba plants that had just come off the ferry.  In a matter of hours, Elio’s plants would be sold out, destined for the backyard gardens of local Brazilians eager for their favorite vegetable. Taioba is the elephant-ear shaped leaf of a root called tannia, which is similar to taro and widely grown throughout South America and Africa.

Even more exciting, much of the taioba was headed for three Vineyard farms—Morning Glory, Norton, and Whipporwill (our CSA), which will grow it along with two other Brazilian vegetables (maxixe, a type of cucumber, and abobora japonesa, an orange-fleshed hard squash) for the first time this year. The vegetables—and the knowledge required to grow them north of the tropics—are here thanks to Frank Mangan, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and his partners who have developed a world crops program in response to the growing number of South American and Asian immigrants in Massachusetts.

It turns out Ali’s role in all this wasn’t anything mysterious. As executive director of Island Grown Initiative, she was acting as liason between Frank, the Brazilian community, island farmers, and island chefs. From Ali’s point of view, growing world crops on the Vineyard is another way to encourage more local eating. And she’s hoping it’s not just Brazilians who give taioba a try. So I had to ask her, “What does it taste like?” Her response: “Think of taioba as collards after a deep-tissue massage; kinks gone, it’s velvety but holds its own.” How intriguing. You can understand why I’m looking forward to Ali’s next phone call.

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