October 20, 2014

It’s no secret that a key to memorable food is using fresh ingredients at the height of season. Whether this is preached by a popular chef or learned firsthand in the garden, there’s no denying the vibrance. The summer tomato is inarguably our poster-child for the fresh food we crave. As farmers know, shortening the time from plant to plate can mean the difference in a sweet, buttery pea …. and a starchy pile of mush that creates a kid-and-parent-standoff you both remember with disgust for years to come. The best taste test can convert the curious into lifelong gardeners, who are lucky to have the freshest at their fingertips.

So then, if fresh is best, what about a thirty-year-old bean? So far, it has created the happiest meal for me this week. Never fear — it was a perfectly preserved heirloom seed that produced a tall teepee of gigantic ‘Christmas’ lima beans. We talk a lot about heirlooms and heritage in the food and farming world these days—it’s nothing new (har har). It recently became very personal to me, though, as I happened upon a pillowcase of seeds more than 30 years old, saved by my husband’s grandfather. When he was alive, his garden boasted rows of corn, beans, tomatoes and sprawling patches of birdhouse gourds. Now that I’m consumed with cooking my own homegrown food, I’ve sought every source imaginable for colorful stories and any remnants of how it was done by generations before me. Did I get my love of Lady peas from my grandmother, just as I believe I inherited her zeal for mayhaw jelly? Did Grampa grow way too many varieties of tomatoes, as I do? Did they plant by the moon or have a trick for the sweetest, biggest watermelon? My husband, David, has grown a garden of his own for many years, reliving moments shared with his elders that were atypical of his suburban childhood. You can imagine our collection of seeds—from family, rural co-op stores, catalogs, passalong packets, and gems from organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange—has grown to fill a separate freezer and chest.

Imagine our excitement this spring when my husband’s uncle casually mentioned an extra freezer filled with seeds he inherited—seeds that were saved from the vegetable and gourd patches of thirty years ago. Better than a cedar chest of handmade quilts and equally as telling as a tattered, old photo album, we were thrilled. As we poured through each bag of seeds, I loved hearing the stories. “These are those huge speckled beans we just love! You have to stick ‘em though,” advises his aunt of the cranberry-and-white Christmas beans that robustly wind up poles and need trellising, apparently known as “sticking."

“Here’s his sack of gourd seeds,” shares his uncle, passing a threadbare pillow case from the freezer drawer, promising thousands of future purple martin birdhouses. Now, with gourds bobbing among fuzzy leaves and vines on our back plot, David can not only relive a memory shared with his grandfather, but keep a part of history alive. I think planting these heirlooms is the closest I can come to experiencing our grandparents’ gardens firsthand and keep a little piece of history growing on.

If you’re interested in tasting (and preserving) a bit of history, try planting heirloom seeds. Strengthen the link of using fresh, locally-grown food by traveling back in time. Check out Seed Savers Exchange for a wide selection of heirloom seeds, and a 13,000-people membership who swap seeds and tell the most interesting tales. In our Cooking Light Garden, we’re growing heirloom seeds offered by Seed Savers Exchange, such as Mexican Sour Gherkin, Fish pepper, Hillbilly tomatoes and much, much more. In a recent visit to the demonstration garden and heirloom seed headquarters in Decorah, Iowa, I found a patch of sweet ground cherries just like we are trying in our Cooking Light test kitchen garden --a new obsession of mine that is so fun to share with dinner guests. Whether saved seeds or a love of growing fresh foods, pass it on.

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