One summer, on the hottest day Chicago had experienced since the 1930s, I found myself standing on the roof of a former meatpacking plant. Watching the sun set over the flat western reaches of the city, listening to the hum of bees in their rooftop hives, watching the swallows give way to bats in the evening hunt for insects, I stood in the scorching heat surrounded by the quiet foliage of tomatoes, squash, sunchokes, and potatoes growing in repurposed pickle buckets, burlap sacks, and crooked PVC pipes. The farmer had planted a mix of fruits and vegetables that he hoped could handle the unique demands of a rooftop farm, but that would also appeal to his customers' palates. He had also planted seeds from a stock of family heirlooms, familiar flavors from his childhood. He transformed cast-off pulp from a local juice bar into the rich, loamy foundation for his farm, thanks in part to his hardworking interns and earthworms. Thus new flavors and familiar memories, fruits and vegetables that form the simple components of someone's lunch, yet also represent vast networks of global trade and world history, momentarily came to rest in this unlikely place. Rare fruits and vegetables that preserve flavors of the past are to be found on rooftops like this and farms, gardens, and vacant lots in many parts of the world.
For many of us, food shapes our sense of who we are. From backyard tomato patches in the United States to the potato parks of Peru, from the cornfields of Iowa to the rice paddies of Thailand, the world is crisscrossed with powerful connections among memory, food, and the places we inhabit. With the mid-twentieth-century rise of industrial farming, the genetic makeup of our food supply—the root of these memories and meanings, and of our survival—changed dramatically, more in some parts of the world than in others. In particular, the cornucopia of grains, fruit, vegetables, and livestock that the agricultural peoples of the world have relied on for millennia shrank over the century. In the United States and Europe, where industrialized agriculture is the norm, this reliance on a small fraction of the available edibles has meant a superabundance of identical corn plants in the fields of Iowa and lean white pigs populating the hog factories of South Carolina, but it leaves out an array of genetic and culinary diversity. This change came about in the face of a declining market for the plants and animals that were not well-suited to industrial agriculture. Large old apple trees are just one example. Orchards full of standard apple trees (as opposed to dwarf and semi-dwarf) that grow to twenty-five feet once containing tremendous biodiversity were felled by the thousands as developers subdivided farms and orchards, built houses, and carved roads and freeways into the changing landscape. Apple production became more standardized and centralized, shifting from tall trees in backyards and farms and small orchards to short trees in large orchards growing only a few varieties. Laws and farming practices and subsidies changed in this era, as did tastes and habits. This change has occurred not only in the United States but also around the world, as great swaths of land have been covered in monocultures of Cavendish bananas, pineapples, and corn and soybeans that are nearly identical genetically.
Numerous apple varieties have vanished permanently from the face of the earth and cattle breeds that numbered in the tens of thousands in the 1920s are now gone forever, but in many parts of the world people are working hard to preserve the biodiversity and genetic heritage not only of rare panda bears or singular orchids, but also of barnyard animals and the backyard vegetable garden. A major consequence of this work in the United States has been the revival of neglected varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, and livestock.
All my senses were engaged in my search for the connections among food, memory, and the earth around us, discovering rich, living landscapes of old-fashioned plants and animals and delicious meals of locally grown and home-cooked food. I came upon the links between a simple midday meal and the complex webs of history and geography in which we dwell. I learned the ways a tomato can evoke the past and an apple can offer hope for the future. These memories and meanings matter not only to the menus of fancy restaurants or well-stocked organic grocery stores, but also to subsistence gardeners and to agricultural biodiversity and the future of the food supply. This is a story that comes about from watching people do their thing—from observing individual farmers and eaters and whole populations pursuing their habits and appetites across time and space, the ways people experience and work on and narrate the world.
One of the last trips I took before finishing the final draft of this book was to the Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout in Decorah, Iowa. In one of the show gardens, seeds are grown out that have been sent in by members across the country, with little signs that recount their particular stories. These plants thus contribute to both a thriving seed bank and a garden full of visitors learning about varieties of edible plants once doomed to either obscurity or extinction. The seeds themselves then also become available through the Seed Savers Exchange catalog and website, filling gardens across the country and even around the world—when I visited a seed savers' garden in Austria, for example, I found that some of their seeds had been ordered from Decorah. The 2013 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook offered sixteen varieties of collards (Brassica oleracea ), for example, listing them with details like "Grown in Eastern N[orth] C[arolina] for 100 years," "Creole, old southern favorite," "Good texture, from Ralph Blackwell, Jasper, AL, 1989, passed down in the Blackwell family ... grown by Ralph's aunt Ila (Blackwell) Spoker as early as the 1930s."
When not walking down garden paths and reading about some long-forgotten (but now remembered) variety of collard greens or carrots during that conference in Iowa, I attended workshops on cider making and seed saving and urban gardens. I listened in as earnest newlyweds embarking on their own heirloom farming careers talked with grizzled farmers in well-worn Dickies overalls. On the conference's main evening, a few hundred people sat together to hear the keynote lecture in the natural amphitheater created by this beautiful valley. Multiple generations of us, coming from many different places, stretched out on the grass in the fading daylight, mesmerized by the buttermilk sky. This little valley and farm have been crucial to a nationwide (and indeed international) movement, but this group is only one of many players at many levels. A host of similar groups across the country and the world, made up of people doing what they love, what comes naturally, what they're passionate about, help to stem the tide of disappearing genes and genotypes. This shared passion for seeds, for vegetables, for botany, for nourishment, repeated in private rural gardens and public seed archives, changes the world in important ways.
After I roused myself from the grassy hill, and before the barn dance, I climbed into the cramped backseat of an old truck packed with farm tools and went for a ride along a bumpy trail in the growing dusk through a landscape profoundly affected by human hands, and that harbors rare genetic codes in the cattle and the vegetables and the fruit trees. Ancient White Park cattle, a rare breed being preserved here at the Heritage Farm, were lowing in the twilight, and a sliver of a moon rose above the ridge. We drove through valleys, forests, meadows, and pastures, past beaver dams and streams with an evening mist rising as the heat of the day dissipated. Notwithstanding the understandable worry and urgency about issues of health and hunger, and their connections to politics and economics,10 there is something joyful about food. Even in this strange year of terrible drought, this valley overflowed with exuberant vegetables and exuberant people.
Such gardens and seed banks dot the globe. Some are large scale and well funded; others are at risk and scraping by. They include the Millennium Seed Bank in Britain's Royal Botanical Gardens (with 10 percent of the world's plant species); Navdanya in Uttrakhand, India, with 5,000 varieties of crop plants; Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway (the so-called "Doomsday" Vault) with space for 4.5 million seeds; the National Center for Genetic Resources in Fort Collins, Colorado, with more than 8,000 species of seeds; and the Vavilov Research Institute in Russia, with 60,000 seed varieties. Others are on a much smaller scale, including seed banks in war-torn regions like Iraq and Syria, or those exposed to tsunamis, floods, and other cataclysmic events.
Many of the people running these seed banks—including the Iowa seed savers and many other people I spoke with or came across in my reading of thousands of newspaper articles and books—connect memory with seeds. At the 2013 Conference and Campout, for example, there was a bean giveaway—the massive bean archive of a woman who had died that year. She had carefully saved beans, cataloging them in plastic soda bottles. This highly personal archive, the result of tremendous work, could have been forgotten, thrown away, or lost. Instead, these beans found their way into the pockets and gardens of countless gardeners and farmers. Conference attendees who wanted to take beans home were asked to leave their names and the varieties they took, and to report back on how the beans grew out. Some bottles contained just a few seeds; others were filled to the cap with more seeds than one person could possibly plant. The bottles were labeled with the variety names (like Turkey Craw) and hints about flavor, texture, and use. The beans themselves recalled not only this ardent seed saver, but also the growers and eaters of those beans over decades and centuries, across continents and oceans.
There are many motivations for seeking out heirloom varieties: not only for flavor, novelty, resilience, and the preservation of biodiversity, but because of childhood memories of eating particular fruits and vegetables, or shared stories of a specific seed, tuber, or graft. Many seed savers see themselves as stewards, not only of their own family memories but of the shared stories and genetic codes contained within these plants. This kind of recollection works against collective forgetting and the widespread disappearance of so many agricultural plants and animals. Old localized, traditional varieties of plants and animals fell (or were pushed) out of everyday use as agriculture became increasingly large scale, industrialized, and standardized, relying on ever fewer varieties in order to achieve the high levels of uniformity and predictability expected not only by stockholders but also by grocery store shoppers. The loss of biodiversity also means a broader form of forgetting. These genes connect many people to the past, to the ways people gardened, farmed, and raised livestock in their own families or in far-off places. The genotypes of heirloom varieties—of Tennessee fainting goats or of the Abraham Lincoln or Arkansas Traveler tomatoes—speak both to particular genetic arrangements and to specific times and places, as responses to short growing seasons or rocky soil.
At the heart of all food are the genes that form its essence and the work that goes into its production: the towering pastries in the windows of Parisian patisseries have their origins in wheat grown in Canadian fields and shipped across the Atlantic;13 the butter my great-great-aunt churned came from the doe-eyed Jersey cows in her barn in Northern California; the high-fructose corn syrup in so much of the food on supermarket shelves and fast-food menus comes mostly from fields of genetically modified corn stretched across the center of the United States. Each of these raw materials receives its shape from particular genes and genotypes. The genes and especially the genotype (the particular combination of genes in a given variety of plant or breed of animal) guide the growth of wheat and cows and corn—of everything we eat. This tiny code gives commands that pull together the right proteins to end up with kernels of wheat and tubs of butter. Genes and genotypes ultimately give food (or the raw materials of fruits, vegetables, grains, and animals) its particular form—whether heirloom tomatoes in a garden in Kentucky, potatoes in the high, rocky fields of Peru, or the highly processed wheat that goes into boxed cake mixes. The results of these genetic raw materials are in turn shaped by planting, harvesting, and processing—milking the cow, crafting the pastry, milling the corn into corn syrup and then processing it into other foods. On top of these genes, the particular plants and animals they produce, and the work of processing, we humans add layers of meaning and memory, as well as politics and economy, that prefer some genes over others.
Wheat offers just one example. A small range of closely related genotypes produces wheat kernels that most of us would have trouble distinguishing from one another. Triticum aestivum or Triticum durum and other domesticated Triticum varieties have been layered with culture and politics for millennia. Wheat served as the basis for the breads so essential to medieval European culinary traditions (whether low-status dark bread or high-status white bread). Rachel Laudan, for example, cites many instances of the seemingly ever-changing meanings of white bread and whole-wheat bread. Yet advocates of many alternative diets today see modern wheat as one of the most unhealthful foods modern humans can eat. The raw genetic material's expression, the phenotype, gets processed by a multitude of technologies: handheld scythes and giant mechanized threshers, water-powered grinding stones and monumental flour mills. These foods contain particular nutrients and have direct effects on our bodies' chemistry. They become cultural objects, embedded in physiological, political, and economic systems, but also in systems of meaning, memory, and identity. These close relatives of the wheat family become many different things: the bread that was so scarce in France in the late eighteenth century, the ubiquitous baguettes of contemporary Vietnam (edible remnants of the French colonial presence), the Roman Meal bread my mother used to make our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or the coveted loaves produced by Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, where the bread is sold once a day (after 4:30 p.m.) to those at the head of the long line that forms outside the store. A single plant species, Triticum, here acts as an almost-blank canvas for human meaning. Particular farmers and living history museums now plant long-neglected heirloom varieties of wheat, like Red Fife or Turkey Hard Red Winter wheat, re-creating the flavors and the landscape of Canadian pioneers or fleeing Mennonites. But these heirloom wheats occupy only a tiny percentage of global wheat acreage, and it often takes a fair amount of effort or expense to actually get to eat them.
Many heirloom plants (including these old-fashioned forms of Triticum) and animals carry traits not especially well suited to large-scale and industrial agriculture, which goes a long way toward explaining their decline in the twentieth century. As nitrogen fertilizers, cross-country transportation, and refrigeration greatly increased, so too did ways of producing food that strongly favor uniformity, durability, longevity, and transportability. As early as 1929, Edward Bunyard (an eloquent and opinionated fruit connoisseur) was already complaining in England about the sacrifice of flavor for transportability.
From Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes & Other Forgotten Foods by Jennifer A. Jordan. Copyright 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.