POV: At first glance, seeds might seem like an unusual subject for a story. As a food historian, would you disagree? What stories do seeds have to tell?
William Woys Weaver: Seeds are cuisines waiting to happen. We have come to a point in our culture where we have forgotten the connection between the food we grow, the food we eat, and who we are as a people. Seeds preserve our cultural identity. They are like entire civilizations buried in a grain of sand. Take a grain of emmer wheat (farro), an olive pit, and a grape seed; you have the cornerstone of Mediterranean culture in the palm of your hand.
Telling the story of a plant is a bit like reconstructing its family history. You have to be a Sherlock Holmes of sorts and spend a lot of time doing archival research. I like to read old seed catalogs and old garden magazines. When you dig through these sources, you pick up interesting details and observations and sometimes you even learn who created the variety, which puts a human face on the story. I like to grow the plant and get to know it. And while I am in the garden weeding around it, communing with it you might say, its distinctiveness comes to me, and I begin to see what is important to say about it.
POV: Sometimes we refer to seed varieties with long and colorful histories as heirlooms. Can you tell us a bit more about what makes an heirloom seed?
Weaver: Different opinions abound as to the definition of an heirloom. I think it's easiest to think of heirlooms as handed down over several generations. They are open pollinated (naturally pollinated). Some are old commercially-developed varieties, others are vegetables that evolved in someone's backyard, still others are ancient varieties that have sustained farming cultures in the developing world for many centuries. Most heirlooms were created through selection of strains, a slow process, and many began as hybrids, but then through selection, they were "fixed" so that they would retain the desired traits they have.
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver
POV: Most Americans get their produce from the supermarkets in their town. Maybe they have a choice between organic and conventional, but often they have no way of knowing where the vegetables come from. You'd be hard-pressed to find the word "heirloom" anywhere in most supermarkets. So why are heirlooms and seed saving important to the average American? What's at stake?
Weaver: First of all, heirlooms offer a diversity not available in monoculture (one crop) farming. When you consider that there are over 5,000 varieties of tomatoes and probably twice as many potatoes, think of the incredible variety of flavors, colors and textures we have at our disposal as cooks. Furthermore, this huge variety offers an equally huge "pasture" of nutrients we cannot get from processed food. That is probably the gastronomic reason why chefs like heirlooms so much.
Native American beans growing on Seneca Blue Bear Dance corn.
Photo by Rob Cardillo.
The scientific argument is also important: we need to preserve that diversity in order to be healthy human beings, in order to have an insurance policy, if you will, against the possibility that our hybrid vegetables will eventually burn out and fail (they always do). Heirlooms are tried and true. They work for particular soils and climate conditions and do not require the investment in pesticides, fertilizers, and other hidden costs, which is why they are so popular with organic growers. Heirlooms bring down the cost of farming so that average people can make a living from it. We need that.
Lastly, what is at stake? Well, the hybrid foods we get in supermarkets have been raised at an enormous price in terms of energy consumption. It is all based on oil. The sprays, the packaging, the fuel needed to farm on a large scale, is all based on cheap oil. Then there is the cost of shipping these foods to various parts of the country. Look at all of the packages, bags, plastic containers in a typical supermarket. These are hidden costs. Why is everything so cheap? Because we are borrowing against the environment, we are paying for these cheap foods by exporting high cost farm supplies to the Third World. This bubble will eventually burst.
POV: Perhaps you can explain the word monoculture, since it is not a word we see in everyday speech?
Weaver: The term, most literally, represents a type of farming that relies on one genetically-identical crop as a source of income. The pitfalls of this type of agriculture are many. First, when you have a field of genetically-identical crops, there is the chance that a disease may come along for which the plants have not been bred and it may wipe out the entire crop. This has already happened with genetically-modified corn and soybeans.
Farmers have been bombarded with seemingly convincing data from the big seed companies that this is the way to the best profits in the business. It turns out that this method of farming primarily benefits the very large-scale farms who are already benefiting from government subsidies. This is one of the political dimensions of monoculture.
The opposite of monoculture farming is biodiversification. This means planting a diversity of crops so that you don't rely on any one single crop for overall success. You view your farm holistically, in that all plants growing on it have a use. Output is therefore defined not only by a field of soybeans, but also by the apple trees you may own, the dandelion greens in your lawn that you may eat for spring salad, the wild brambleberries along a field that might supply you with a summer pie. This is a new form of agriculture that is taking root right at this moment as a reaction to monoculture. When you go into a store and look at fruit and vegetables, how can you tell what had been grown in a monoculture? There is a little round label and it will list a patent number. You do not have to buy it and the more people who don't, the louder the message will be that you want something better for your children.
POV: What are some of your favorite stories behind heirloom vegetables? Tell us one or two with all the classic dramatic elements plot, characters, conflict, comedy or tragedy, climax and resolution.
Weaver: One of my favorite stories is about the Martin Carrot Pepper. Mrs. Martin was an Old Order Amish woman in Lancaster County, PA who had an extraordinary vegetable garden and produce stand along Rt. 322 near Ephrata, PA. She walked around barefoot in the summer, pulled her wagon with a mule called Beverly, and always wore handmade aprons. I came to know her very well because I stopped by her produce stand often. In fact, I made a beeline for it when I was in the neighborhood.
One October I was in the area and decided to pay Mrs. Martin a visit. I stopped along the road but her produce stand was empty and closed up. That was odd because not only did she sell her own produce, she brokered fruit and vegetables for other women in the area, with a keen eye for quality. On a whim, I decided to get out of the car and knock on the door of her house (I do not normally like to intrude on Amish farms that way), because some kind of an alarm bell went off in my head. A woman answered the door, an Amish woman in her forties. When I asked her for Mrs. Martin, she informed me that her mother had died and that she was cleaning out the house. I was appalled."What will happen to her wonderful seeds?" I asked. "Do you want them?" responded her daughter. I took all she could spare and then some, and spent the rest of the day helping her sweep out the house. If I hadn't gone to that door, I would never have gotten Mrs. Martin's Carrot Pepper, an old-time heirloom stuffing pepper that ripens orange and grows just like a bush full of carrots. It's a nice ornamental pepper, but it also reminds me of Mrs. Martin and her 80-odd years of gardening. Her smiling spirit still moves through her plants.
A number of years ago I was invited to lecture at Monticello on heirloom vegetables. I had already supplied the garden with a rare marigold from 1823, a Texas bird pepper from 1816, and the cardoon of Tours (pre-1750), all of which Jefferson had grown. Peter Hatch, who is in charge of the garden at Monticello, very generously gave me a check list of all the vegetables mentioned in Jefferson's letters and garden account books. This became a want list, much as book collectors create lists of "must have" items. Some of the most difficult to find plants were old lettuces. Since Jefferson listed most of his lettuces by their French names (his seeds were from France), I decided to consult French agricultural encyclopedias from the 1780s, which listed all the then-known vegetable varieties and where in France they were grown. Also listed were the Dutch, German, and English names. Pay dirt! Having found these lists I was able to "shop" in seed collections for lettuces known under several aliases. A seed collector in Sweden informed me excitedly by email one spring that a woman in Latvia had just sent him and his seed organization (SESAM) seed for the "Laitue blonde de Berlin," otherwise known as Berlin Yellow Summer Lettuce (a pre-1780 variety). This lettuce was considered extinct. I grew it out one year to make certain it was the real thing (it was) and traded seed with the US Department of Agriculture for some rare lettuces I did not have. I also sent seed to Monticello where the lettuce can be seen in the gardens today.
POV: Short of cultivating my own heirloom garden, what can I do?
Weaver: Cultivating an heirloom garden is a commitment. It is a wonderful way to educate children about the value of food and living things. But it is a full time commitment, so not everyone has the time or energy to devote to it. I would say, in that case, buy your food from a local farmer. Support the green markets and farm markets nearest you. You will get to know the people who grow your food and you will feel a lot better about it, because you will be getting something grown with pride, and if you have a question, you can ask them directly. Helping the small farmer also helps preserve open space, farmland, and ultimately, the environment.