Editor’s Note: For the latest episode of the Pickle Shelf Radio Hour, producers Mike Costello and Amy Dawson collected stories from West Virginia gardeners and seed savers behind the many heirloom crops grown in their garden at Lost Creek Farm. Go beyond the episode and learn more about its subjects and stories with these producer’s field notes. And keep up with the latest episodes of the Pickle Shelf via your favorite podcasting service.
“Buddy, that Logan Giant is a good eatin’ bean.”
I heard this proclamation over the phone about once a week, sometimes more, throughout the summer of 2016. Our buddy Lou Maiuri, a now-92-year-old gardener from Summersville, had just given Amy and me some seeds for the Logan Giant pole beans he’s been growing for over 60 years. He called us every few days that growing season to check in on the plants, from the moment they first sprouted all the way to sprawling-vine maturity. When the harvest was underway and we were cooking and preserving Logan Giants every evening, he’d call to check in on that, too.
“I told you it was a good eatin’ bean,” he said.
If you spend some time with us at Lost Creek Farm, we’ll tell you all about Lou and the many other people behind the heirloom crops in our garden. Amy and I have been collecting seeds and recording their stories for years, so this fall’s harvest season seemed like a decent time to share a few of our favorites in a very seedy episode of The Pickle Shelf Radio Hour, our storytelling podcast on food and culture, produced in partnership with the Daily Yonder.
For just about all of our plants, there’s not just a Lou Maiuri-type figure, but a whole community of people responsible for their existence. Someone was given seeds years ago, often decades ago, and out of kindness or responsibility–most often, both–passed them onto us. But before those folks, there was a long line of others who grew the plants, saved the seeds and passed them along over the years.
Amy and I are always digging around for stories about ingredients and recipes, but what we truly strive to uncover are narratives about the people behind them. Seeds are perfect for this work: they’re small, but powerfully sentimental. They represent so much beyond tiny, tangible objects we put in the dirt to grow food, and that’s what we hoped to show off in this episode.
“It’s fascinating, the way seeds travel”
On previous episodes of The Pickle Shelf, we’ve highlighted a few examples of West Virginia foodways being influenced by historic and current patterns of immigration. That’s no different this time around: there are stories of tomatoes and peppers passed down by Italian mining families, and root vegetables whose seeds were carried across the Atlantic by German and French immigrants, and hundreds of crops being grown and preserved in Reedsville, W.Va. by Mehmet Öztan, a native of Turkey.
When Mehmet shares his own journey to growing hundreds of Turkish plant varieties as a way to reconnect with the cuisine of his home country, another powerful trait of seeds becomes apparent: they connect us to cultural identity and connection to place, whether in the highlands of Turkey, Central Appalachia or anywhere else. “It’s fascinating, the way seeds travel,” he says, citing beans native to North America and tomatoes, which originated in South America. Both of these crops made their way to Europe centuries ago, then to Turkey, where Mehmet says they are some of the most important ingredients in Turkish cuisine. Mehmet and his partner, Amy Thompson, now aim to preserve both Turkish and Appalachian seeds through their small company, Two Seeds in a Pod Heirloom Seed Company.
I consider Mehmet’s work especially meaningful, not because the contributions of other seed savers aren’t meaningful, but because Mehmet encourages a holistic view of the seed world through many lenses: racial justice, equitable land distribution, and environmental sustainability, to name only a few. Mehmet works on seed preservation projects at West Virginia University, including a seed preservation library at a public library in Morgantown, where seeds and their complex stories are made available to the public. He also organizes a speaker series called Seedy Talks, featuring a lineup of thought leaders covering topics from a corporate takeover of the global seed supply, to racism in the small-scale seed industry.
As always, it’s complicated
Most seeds considered Appalachian heirlooms or heritage varieties are defined by feel-good narratives about certain families passing them down over the generations. That’s laudable, sure, but there’s more to the story–always. Like most stories about rural culture and Appalachian foodways, the histories of seeds are complicated. Crops like corn, beans and squash began with Native communities cultivating them long before the arrival of European settlers.
White people in rural communities, especially in Appalachia, sure seem to have a thirst for nuance, but only selectively so. We’re easily perturbed by outside narratives we feel are incomplete. Yet when it comes to seeds, we’re no better ourselves. In celebrating the names behind the Josephine Jackson Half-Runner, Harold Conley Bean and Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash, we forget to tell ourselves the stories of genocide and land theft that allowed Indigenous seed varities to be grown and claimed by white Appalachians in the first place.
For all seeds give us, they don’t ask for much in return. And when we pass these seeds on to future generations, we owe it to them to learn and share their histories–not just those we want to hear.
As I mention Native origins of many of our seeds, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight some important work being done around seed sovereignty and seed rematriation (returning historically Indigenous seed varieties to their ancestral stewards in tribal communities) by groups like the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network:
Some of these seeds have been missing from our communities for centuries, carried on long journeys in smokey buckskin pouches, on the necks of peoples who were forced to relocate from the land of their births, their ancestral grounds.
Generations later, these seeds are now coming back home to communities of origin, from the vaults of public institutions, seed banks, universities, seed keeper collections, and some lying on dusty pantry shelves of foresighted elders, seeds patiently sleeping and dreaming.
As with every episode, this one presented its fair share of production and publishing challenges (Thanks again to the McDonald’s in Clarksburg for lending us a parking spot and 20 minutes worth of free WiFi to upload this episode–and all of our previous episodes).
But the challenges this time around weren’t solely related to technical production or the unfathomably slow upload speeds in rural West Virginia. Though it’s not exactly easy to conduct in-person interviews mid-pandemic, we were able to build this episode from a heap of material recorded over the past few years. But this plethora of content presented its own challenges.
Reducing over 20 hours of tape down to a one-hour episode is an arduous process, full of drawn-out heartbreaking decisions. This happens with every episode, though. There’s always so much we want to include, but ultimately have to sacrifice on the editorial chopping block. Stay tuned as we try to remedy this to some extent, with an upcoming series of audio shorts we call Quick Pickles–supplemental clips of moments we absolutely love, but couldn’t quite fit into the main episode. These stories and more supporting content from all of our previous episodes are on the way as we wrap up our inaugural season.
The world of seeds is so rich, its voices are diverse, and the issues are worthy of endless exploration. We couldn’t begin to do them justice in one episode featuring only a few seed-savers in West Virginia. There will always be more seedy stories to tell–I have a feeling we’re not done talking seeds on The Pickle Shelf Radio Hour.
Hear these stories and more in the latest episode of the Pickle Shelf Radio Hour, a storytelling podcast produced by Lost Creek Farm in partnership with the Daily Yonder. You can catch up on all of the episodes at dailyyonder.com/the-pickle-shelf-radio-hour or via most popular podcasting platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. Be sure to subscribe to keep up with the latest episodes.