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A Must Read

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HistoricFoodie View Drop Down
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    Posted: 23 October 2013 at 12:44
Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste
Bill Best
University of Ohio Press
Athens, OH 2013

Earlier this year, the Ohio University Press quietly published Bill Best’s book, “Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste.”

Now, there are several good books on seed saving out there. But this one is different on many levels.

First off, this is not a how-to book. It would be hard to top Susanne Ashworth’s “Seed To Seed” in that respect. Nor is it a collection of varieties and their histories, although there is a little of that mixed in. What it is, is an exploration of the cultural traditions associated with seed saving, in general, and seed saving of southern Appalachia in particular.

Now that heirlooms have entered the mainstream there is, alas, a wide-spread problem. Many new enthusiasts have no feel for the historical background of open pollinated vegetables, or for the reason that biodiversity is so important. They have no idea of the family traditions behind these seeds, or why they were passed down one generation to the next. For them, heirlooms are just the latest culinary trend.

Sometimes those of us involved with preserving these older varieties before it became trendy get a little short-tempered when newbies start sounding off about them. We, perhaps justifiably, get a bit testy when the word “heirloom” is used as if it applied to one specific variety; or when seed marketers create yet another legend (have you heard the one about Cherokee Purple and the Indian princess?), or when Burpee’s latest introduction is described by someone as an heirloom because anything not a GMO is an heirloom.

Well, despite Bill Best being entitled to such feelings, none of that appears in his wonderful new book. He’s not on a soapbox. Rather, he wants to preserve some of the stories about the people who have been seed saving---sometimes for generations, other time only for decades. What the book consists of is a look at the autobiographical and biographical details of how many of us got involved with preserving these old time varieties, and the reasons for it.

I say “many of us” because I’m including in the roster. Indeed, about half a dozen of these profiles deal with former members of the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy, which I had co-founded and run for five years. Many of them were saving seeds long before the word “heirloom” was applied. That only dates to the 1980s and the Seed Savers Exchange.

Mostly what the book does is provide a context for seed saving and preservation of old-time vegetables. As you read each person’ story you gain a perspective on heirlooms, and what they’re really about. You gain insights into the whole concept of seed saving you’ll get no other way I know of. And you do it not via an academic study, but through live people for whom seed saving is a passion.

Stylistically, “Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste” is an easy read. In many ways it resembles the old Foxfire books in tone. Best doesn’t lecture. Instead, it’s as if he was sitting across from you, talking about some of the characters he’s met through the years, and their place in the seed-saving world. What’s more, he lets you hear about their efforts in their own words.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in growing heirlooms. If you can’t find it locally, you can buy autographed copies directly from Bill by going to the SMAC (Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center) website: http://heirlooms.org.


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gonefishin View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gonefishin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 October 2013 at 12:56
    I think many of "us", not in the know, would benefit from reading this book.  Thanks for sharing an insiders perspective on this book, and on the topic of Saving Seeds Today.

   I have got so much respect for you and the others that have been preserving these seeds long before I ever took notice.  From this perspective, it looks as though we have been as irresponsible with our Nation's Historical Seeds as we once treated our Wild Life. 

    I'm going to file this book in my list of "must read" at GoodReads.com, just so I don't forget (added).

  Thanks for the recommendation!
  Dan
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 October 2013 at 15:45
That's a pretty good parallel, Dan. With one difference.

Wildlife, for the longest time, was seen as an unlimited resource, placed here to be exploited. Even in cases where hunting (market hunting, that is, not sport hunting) eliminated a species, few saw that as writing on the wall. If species X was no longer available we'd just move on to species Y.

Coupled with the rapid loss of habitat (which is at least as important a part of the equation) wild life of all kinds was in trouble.

It could be argued that we've gone too far in the other direction with both our conservation laws and restocking programs. But that's a different subject.

Seeds, on the other hand, were "improved" out of existence all through the 19th and early 20th century.

Starting roughly in the 1940s, loss of varieties was accelerated both by seed companies and the government, who colluded to push the "hybrids are better" message. Once factory farming changed the nature of the food distribution system, open pollinated types were all but doomed.

Fortunately, many families continued to grow the older, open pollinated types, and pass them down, generation to generation. While we've still lost many of those old time varieties, we're constantly rediscovering them because of that.

There have always been gardeners who collected and maintained those seeds, for various reasons. But formalized efforts to collect, categorize, and preserve them started in the 1980s when Kent and Dianne Whealey started the Seed Savers Exchange.

Latest dramatic instance was the rediscovery by my friend Rodger Winn of a watermelon thought to be extinct. Called the Bradshaw, it had all but disappeared, except by one family which has been growing it for 8 generations. Rodger (who, incidentally, is also profiled in the book)tracked them down, and will be re-establishing it as a viable melon. Seed should be available in the fall of 2014.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gonefishin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 October 2013 at 17:27
    So many great points brought up in your response, thanks for taking the time  Smile
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 October 2013 at 18:24

If anyone is interested in obtaining this book, I, for one, would urge you to do it through the SMAC site, as the revenue helps support that organization's work.

If money is an issue, it's available at a savings from Amazon. Here's the link:

http://www.amazon.com/Saving-Seeds-Preserving-Taste-Appalachia/dp/0821420496/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382573934&sr=8-1&keywords=Bill+Best
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