Zach Diamond is an ecologist, amateur chef, and folk musician. He is also the brainchild of Extra Pulp, an interview-style podcast that shines a much needed light on food farmers and food thinkers in hopes of progressing the sustainable food movement.
Diamond took a chance that the food-related conversations he was having on a daily basis might interest others—and so far—it has. He is driven with a deep determination to understand both agriculture and the business-side of how food is made, and how this process may be improved in our lifetime.
It was educational influence that initially tuned him in to the role food plays in climate change. Diamond studied biology and ecology in college. It was “Dr. Phil Dustan, my ecology professor, that opened my eyes,” says Diamond. “He’s a coral reef ecologist who worked with the actual [Jacques] Cousteau ... witnessed coral reefs get decimated over the years. His teachings ultimately shifted my whole paradigm on the issue of why we need to fight climate change.”
Thus, the larger purpose for Extra Pulp was born, as he writes: "Technological advancements have created a fog that screens us from remembering this world." A little meta, right? What he means becomes particularly apparent in how he describes the way society views it’s food.
“Eating ethically raised animals, locally grown crops, and non-processed foods was once commonplace, but is now considered expensive and gourmet. Going back to these culinary roots would be better for our health, environment, and taste buds," says Diamond. And his podcast pretty much backs up the need for real conversations to instill change.
“I was reaching out to people I found interesting on a personal level, knowing I wanted to provide a solution for the food industry, but not as a chef. I figured others might like to hear those conversations, too,” says Diamond, who currently works with the USDA on a project looking at how bumblebees affect gene flow in alfalfa.
Changing Minds And Hearts
Stating the obvious, people don’t respond well when an issue like climate change is being shoved down their throat. “I’d say there’s no link between the amount people know about climate change and their beliefs. I don’t think throwing numbers at anyone helps change minds,” Diamond says. “I wanted to create an alternative way to get people interested and excited about climate change and felt the easiest way to do that is through how we grow our food, and how we can change our food system to be more sustainable.”
That reticence to accept the negative aspects of climate change may not be surprising given that climate change has only been identified as an issue in fairly recent history. “It’s somewhat of a new problem,” says Diamond. “ Just a few generations ago, people were buying locally because they had to, there was no mass transport system for our vegetables. We had already solved the problem of our food system 70 years ago. We just have to remind ourselves to get back there.”
Currently in Madison, Wisc., Diamond notes he can go to a grocery store and buy a tomato year-round, “but if you go to South Carolina in the summer and eat a locally-grown heirloom tomato, there’s no comparison in flavor. Our current food system has robbed us of the culinary experience.”
Interestingly, Diamond is taking a fresh look at changing those aforementioned minds and hearts: cultural preservation through the promotion of regionally available foods and the locally developed culinary recipes and how-to’s used to make them come to life. “These old school culinary techniques shape the way we make our foods,” says Diamond. “If we lose them, we’re actually losing our culture.”
For example, jamming. Not to music, but as in the preservation of fresh fruits and vegetables. “As we commoditize our food, we’re losing techniques like fermentation,” says Diamond, noting that episode #1 of “Extra Pulp” includes Madison-based chef Jonny Hunter speaking about Wisconsin back in the day when locals used apple vinegar instead of lemon juice as an acid in dishes. Why? Wisconsin is an apple producing state and lemons used to not be available year-round. This availability factor greatly influenced what actually appears on the plate in various regions.
That’s what he means when he says local ingredients and the cuisine produced with them very literally contributes to regional culture. “That’s why traditional Southern food is different than traditional New England-style food, and I want to make sure we don't lose those differences,” says Diamond, further drawing the connection between what we grow and what we eat.
The Seed Is Key
Many of Diamond’s interviews on the podcast have centered on people in the plant breeding industry, a field recently gaining a lot of attention. “When you think of organic farming, you think of a vegetable being grown and sold, but every vegetable comes from a seed, and when you’re growing crops you’re not letting it seed,” he says. “So, there’s this realm of seed production and plant breeding that gets lost because we don’t see it and that’s where the flavor develops.
The farmer’s market just feels like a better, more intimate experience. Buying from the hands that grew it, so much better than the grocery store. And more flavorful, according to Diamond’s interviewee for Episode 6, Irwin Goldman, “works with beets and has invented the Badger Flame Beet,” says Diamond. “It’s his unique flavor, so for a cook, it’s not just going to a grocery store and buying whatever beets are on the shelf, but buying the ones that are better for different dishes.
“They’ll breed the plant, choosing offspring over time. It’s not genetic engineering,” he continues. “They can preserve this flavor we might have lost because for the last 50 years all plants have been bred to make it to mass amounts of people.” Beyond flavor, there is potential for vegetables to be bred to be more nutritious, carrots bringing more Vitamin A to the table, for instance.
Since Tin Star Foods makes ghee, which starts out as a dairy product, we had to ask him about that. “I did an entire episode with food scientist, Dr. Bradley W. Bolling, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He talks about the actual definition of inflammation, an immune response to a compound in your body that shouldn’t necessarily be there,” says Diamond. “At the same time, he found that yogurt significantly reduces inflammation when eaten with a meal.”
So far, Diamond has kept it to in-person interviews, feeling they’re more authentic, and so he’s mostly talked to experts in the Madison area. He’s excited to broaden that scope and also start including more chefs who have a deliberate approach to their food, what they cook and how they cook it.
Along those lines, in the first season, episode three, Diamond interviews Irwin Goldman, a prominent figure in the plant world whose seeds are being distributed by well-known and -respected chef, Dan Barber’s seed company, Row 7 Seeds, which concentrates on both the culinary aspects of plant breeding and the cultural preservation side of it.
As season one comes to an end, Diamond is leaving his plans for the broadcast open ended. Still his mission is clear: “I know the end goal: pushing sustainability from the perspective of cultural preservation.”
Check out all his podcasts here: https://www.zachdiamond.me