Book Review: Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia

Posted by | July 1, 2013

227081_2057399234645_5654462_nPlease welcome guest author Joyce Pinson. Pinson is a columnist for the Appalachian News Express. She is a seed saver, heirloom vegetable gardener, home cook, food preservationist and local television host. Her blog, friendsdriftinn.com, focuses on recipes, gardening and real life in Kentucky’s Appalachia. Her work has been published in Hobby Farms magazine and Edible Ohio Valley. Pinson is currently working on a cookbook and documentary exploring heirloom vegetables and the people who celebrate them. Along with her husband Charlie, she lives in a big red barn in Kentucky’s coalfields.

 

Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia brings bookworms to the deeply plowed furrows of traditional mountain gardens, and into the lives of the folks who save heritage vegetable and fruit seeds like other people invest money for a rainy day. Published by Ohio University Press, the book is authored by former Berea College professor, Bill Best. The work is a first person account of contemporary Appalachia through the eyes of wise and fiery grandfather.

In seed saving circles, Bill Best is legendary. He has a passion for beans, tomatoes, apples, corn, cucumbers and a winter squash called candy roaster, a passion which spills across the pages of his book in a carefully pieced crazy quilt of history, food culture, and the peculiar gardening language spoken in the mountains, hollows, and foothills of the Southern Appalachians.

Bill Best bookcover

Organized in two sections, the book’s first section outlines various heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables; the second presents profiles of the seed savers who are determined to rescue old varieties from oblivion.

The book appeals to a broad audience. Students of Appalachia will marvel at the collection of words used to describe beans: cut shorts, field beans, leather britches, and fall beans just to name a few. Hobby farmers will revel in the endless possibilities heirloom varieties bring to their gardens. Farmers Market producers can find varieties not commonly known, that might provide a niche product distinguishing their offerings from the competition. The food community will savor the history of heirloom vegetables and gain a better understanding of why the old-fashioned varieties are finding favor among some of the most celebrated chefs in America.

Seed Saving, Preserving the Harvest: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia is a comfortable read. Whether you are an experienced seed saver and heirloom gardener, a farmers market junkie, or someone who has never sunk a seed into the dirt but dreams of growing your own food, Bill Best meets you where you are.

I first met the author at the Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Conference two years ago. His reputation proceeded him, or I would have been caught unawares. To look at the elderly gentleman, it would be easy to underestimate Kentucky’s “Bean Man.”

Best has snowy white hair. His brow is wrinkled; his hands scarred and calloused. He speaks with a slow North Carolina drawl, a gift from his ancestors.

Bill Best

But to listen to his message, to see him raise his fist defiantly shouting “Enough!” as he rails about a contemporary food system that genetically modifies food that ships well, but tastes like cardboard, it is quickly apparent Bill Best is more than what meets the eye.

Bill is an educator. Bill is a vocal advocate of sustainable agriculture. He is a family man who wants his grandchildren to understand the simple joys of an Appalachian garden feast. He is a man with an urgent mission. Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia is truly the best of Best.

An heirloom seed is not just a seed, it has a story, and no one knows it better than Bill Best. Goose Beans, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes, Grandma Rosie Queen’s White Cucumbers, Bill Best knows them all. He understands why seeds have been saved for generations and generations. It is as much about having a sense of place as it is about the flavors of home. But even more importantly, Best realizes our agricultural biodiversity is rapidly slipping away, and we have to do something to stem that tide of disaster.

In the book’s introduction, Best explains his early experiences with the family garden. He writes of his journey, how he came to be one of the most renowned advocates for growing, eating, and preserving old fashioned fruits and vegetables. “Finally it dawned on me that I was on to something that would come to occupy a lot of my time and energy. I had been slow to realize I was involved in an activity that dealt with a lot of history and culture and also tapped into widespread unhappiness with the state of the modern food supply-a food supply dominated by large corporate farms and multinational food/seed/chemical conglomerates,” Best recounts.

Best brings a unique voice to Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia. He writes from real-life experiences. He is a seed saver, with a trio of freezers full of heirloom seeds. He is a farmer. He speaks not only as an astute academic, but as a man with dirt under his fingernails and sweat on his brow.

His heirloom vegetables are so sought after that lines form for his heirloom produce at the local farmers market. In old bib overalls and a ball cap, he waits on customers and tells the story of the vegetables’ legacy. Clients often share seeds with Best; all coming with stories that reflect mountain agriculture history. Best’s Sustainable Mountain Agricultural Center may be a repository for seeds, but it is Bill Best who spills the beans across the nation.

Bill Best hulling beans at his farm in Berea, KY.

Bill Best hulling beans at his farm in Berea, KY.

Through his efforts, heirloom seeds are not just saved, they are distributed for growing. The author retails small packets of heirloom seeds through a website, heirlooms.org. He frequents seed swaps, trading heirloom seeds with other seed-saving enthusiasts, trading stories as well as seed packets. Best has raised awareness for saving Appalachia’s heirloom varieties perhaps more than anyone else. He is my friend, he is one of my heroes.

But, he is not alone in his efforts to salvage our agricultural legacy. The second section of his book reads more like a family scrapbook than a collection of biographical sketches. Readers meet Brooke Elliot, John Coykendall, Dorothy Montgillion, Rodger Winn and others who work to preserve heirloom varieties for the next generation. Through their stories the importance of seed saving, for taste, for history, for biodiversity, comes into a clear focus. There is a nostalgia here, but a very urgent and compelling revelation about how we move to the future.

Bill Best’s book ends on page 200, but the story does not; it is still being written. Appalachia is in transition, trying to reclaim the agricultural legacy while embracing the contemporary needs of our community. Bill Best leads the way.

4 Responses

  • Janet Smart says:

    Our neighbors plant their family heirloom tomatoes (Engle tomatoes is what they call them). I don’t know how long they have been in their family, but I know their family has been planting them since before the depression. He is in his late eighties now. The tomatoes are huge and the vines grow very tall. Their nephew seeded a bunch of them this year and gave us some for our garden. I am anxiously waiting for them to ripen.They are delicious.

  • MichelleandDavid Ochoa says:

    Where can I get some seeds?

  • Ruby Brown says:

    Thank you Mr. Best. I’m so proud of people like you who are trying to save seeds and thus save our heritage. My father was a farmer who was from Eastern KY. We grew almost everything we ate and he was a seed saver. Like you, I have become alarmed about the state of Agriculture in our nation and the loss of knowledge our seniors tried to pass along to us. We came back to our roots and gardening after a 50 year dry spell, only to realize just how much time and knowledge we had forgotten. Now our parents are in Heaven and we can’t ask their precious advice. I can’t wait to find a copy of your book.

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