Editor’s Note: Welcome to Pictures from the Pickle Shelf, a series giving you a closer look at people, places and stories from the Pickle Shelf Radio Hour, a podcast produced by Lost Creek Farm in partnership with the Daily Yonder. For this first edition in the series, producers Mike Costello and Amy Dawson collected stories from some of the West Virginia gardeners and seed savers behind the many heirloom crops grown in their garden at Lost Creek Farm. Listen to the episode now to hear the full story. And subscribe to the podcast through your favorite podcasting platform.
“I identify this field as my home,” Mehmet Öztan says of the six-acre parcel of farmland in Preston County, W.Va, where he’s grown a wide variety of crops for seed preservation over the past two years. “There’s a tomato from my hometown, there’s a watermelon from an eastern town in Turkey, there’s a cucumber from Istanbul, there’s a melon from western Turkey, so that is my home. This is my way of connecting to my culture and country.”
This year, Öztan and his partner, Amy Thompson, grew over 50 different crops; among those were more than 400 individual varieties, like the Çekirdeği Oyalı watermelon and Sımişka sunflower (as seen in the photo above). Originally from the Turkish capital of Ankara, Öztan’s passion for stewarding seeds from his home country later developed into a similar affinity for the seeds from his adopted home in Appalachia. “You never know what places life might take you,” Öztan says. “But the place brings a lot of character to what you do, I think. And then this place, being a very rich region in terms of culinary traditions and seed traditions, affected my practice.”
Appalachia and Turkey are both known for their rich seed diversity. For Öztan, this phenomenon is especially noticeable in the seemingly-endless varieties of heirloom beans found in both regions. With a wide variety of beans comes a diversity of cooking methods, preservation techniques and stories of cultural significance. “It is fascinating to see how there are how many different ways to preserve beans and how many different types of beans there are in this region,” Öztan says. “And that connected me to the bean collection of my own culture.”
“I think the root of it is in the immigrant experience,” Öztan says of his passion for stewarding seeds. When he moved to the U.S., Oztan didn’t anticipate becoming a seed farmer. He was prompted by his struggle to procure familiar ingredients, like certain vegetables he knew from the produce stands back in Ankara. In Turkish cuisine, there are many varieties of eggplant, for instance. Each variety has a different shape, color, flavor and culinary use. Öztan found eggplant fruits in American grocery stores to be seedy and bitter; he says they all looked and tasted the same. In 2010, then a novice gardener, he asked his cousin to send him a few Turkish eggplant seeds, which he planted in a backyard raised-bed garden. “Growing the eggplant, it was like an ‘aha’ moment,” Öztan says. “It was like I completed my search for the flavors I’d been looking for for so long.”
That simple experiment spawned a seed-saving obsession, and, eventually, the launch of Two Seeds in a Pod Heirloom Seed Company, which Öztan and Thompson have co-owned and co-operated since 2013. Two Seeds in a Pod offers dozens of mostly Turkish seed varieties, from a white bean with red markings known as Kırmızı Göbekli Bobo (top right), to Kınalı, a deep-red heirloom okra (bottom right).
“On our creek, everyone had a garden,” says Ann O’Dell, 83. “Used to, anyway. But now, not many of them do.” Bloody Butcher corn (top right below) and Hutchison pole beans (bottom right) are among the seeds O’Dell and her late husband, Arnold, collected from fellow gardeners in their rural community in Jackson County, W.Va. Many of those gardeners and seed savers have since passed away, and O’Dell, 83, says younger generations haven’t carried on the traditions of growing and saving food with the same avidity of their ancestors.
She doesn’t do much gardening anymore, but she still keeps her seeds in a freezer, nearly 20 years after she last planted them in a small meadow-side garden plot on the banks of Sycamore Creek. “That came from a postmaster, Junior Crank,” O’Dell said, pointing to a bag of vivid red Bloody Butcher corn in her collection. “And Junior lost his seed. Somehow he lost his Bloody Butcher, and we gave him back some.” Perhaps due to weather, deer, insects or other crop damage, Crank experienced a difficult growing season around the year 2000 (he passed away in 2009). His entire crop of Bloody Butcher corn was demolished, and he had no seed stock remaining. Luckily, because he had shared the seed with others in the community, the O’Dells were able to help him recover enough seed for future plantings.
“It was seed, I’m sure, that his grandmother Florence had saved,” O’Dell says of a large, maroon speckled Lima bean her father grew during her childhood. “And somehow we lost the seed.” When Junior Crank needed to replace his supply of Bloody Butcher corn, stories of seed loss were already familiar to O’Dell. She had vivid memories of growing and eating–and, unfortunately, losing–a treasured Lima bean from her own family. “When mother cooked it, it had a dark red, auburn broth,” she says. “And dad really liked them, and I liked them. I remember eating them.”
She searched far and wide for these long lost beans, perusing seed catalogs and frequently extolling their virtues to fellow gardeners. One evening she found herself in conversation with Bernice Morrison, an older woman who maintained a prolific garden and an impressive cellar full of canned vegetables. Morrison thought O’Dell’s description sounded familiar, like a bean she’d grown and saved for years: a dark maroon and white mottled bean she knew simply as the Old Time Lima. O’Dell says it didn’t quite have the same flavor or texture she remembered, but that didn’t matter so much to her niece (my wife and partner here at Lost Creek Farm), Amy Dawson. When those beans were handed down to us to grow in our garden, they were still packed with family ties and plenty of sentimental value. “It’s the closest thing to a family bean I have,” Dawson says.
“I’ve been in the Logan Giant business for 60 years,” says Lou Maiuri, who’s been growing, canning and trading heirloom beans for around two-thirds of his 92 years. Among his favorites are the Fat Horse, with a plain white seed, and the Logan Giant, with a large pod containing plump brownish seeds dotted with tiny purple flecks.
The Fat Horse Bean came to him first, from Ann Hubbard, then a young waitress at Humprey’s Dairy Bar, a Kanawha County, W.Va. eatery Maiuri frequented on lunch breaks when he worked for a telephone company in the 1950s and 60s. “We got to talking garden, and I asked her what kind of beans she raised and she told me she and her family grew these heirloom Fat Horse beans, so I told her I was interested,” he said. “To start with, she gave me sixteen seeds.” Over six decades later, Maiuri and Hubbard still keep in touch. “She’s 88 now, and recently she just called me. You know what? She lost all of her Fat Horse seed, so I sent her some this year,” Maiuri said. “I thought about sending her sixteen seeds, just like she did. I thought that’d be kind of funny, but, no, I packaged up a quarter-pound of them and I sent those to her.”
“You can’t beat the Logan Giant. It’s the best bean I’ve ever tasted,” Maiuri says as it’s over 90 degrees and he walks into his cool, dark cellar to escape the heat. High-stacked and fully-stocked shelves contain hundreds of jars of canned green beans and shelled-and-cooked Logan Giants. “I always kept a big supply of food,” Maiuri says. “Always. That’s just how I was raised.”
He grows and cans more beans than he and his wife of 70 years, Jessie, can eat. In addition to the seed he hands out to fellow gardeners, Maiuri often gives away jars of canned beans to friends and neighbors throughout the year. “I never sold nothing in my life,” he says. “I always figure the only thing you’re going to take with you when you leave here is what you give away while you’re here.”
“Every time I slice into a tomato I think of my dad, and how good they are, and how we’re keeping that seed alive and keeping those plants going,” Ellen Radabaugh says about the red Oxheart tomatoes she grows from seeds passed down by her father. “I see my dad in those plants,” she says.
From their farm in Upshur County, W.Va., Ellen and her husband, Charlie, grow a variety of produce to sell at local farmers markets. In addition to the Oxheart tomatoes, Ellen’s father also handed down seeds for the Hanover Turnip, a gnarly, large root vegetable that somewhat resembles a rutabaga. “I remember, he used to put his Hanover seeds in a little medicine bottle,” Ellen says. “And he’d put it in the freezer to plant for next year. They’ve been in the family a long time.”
“Hanovers were a mainstay,” says Charlie Radabaugh of this now-rare crop once widely grown throughout central West Virginia. “For a lot of families, that’s about all they had to eat.” Though Hanovers are harvested primarily for their roots, the plants produce large leaves that make excellent cooking greens. A single plant can produce hundreds of small seed pods. Charlie dries the pods over the winter months, then places them on a white bed sheet to collect thousands of tiny, black seeds before sharing them with friends and fellow gardeners. “I wish more people would start growing Hanovers,” he says. “That’s why I don’t mind sharing the seed.”
“They’re the same ones my dad raised,” Ben Portaro says about the heirloom vegetables he grows each year, from seed his parents handed down after they immigrated from Italy in the early 20th century. Each spring Portaro starts his San Marzano tomatoes and Cubanelle peppers in a small backyard greenhouse in Clarksburg, W.Va. He sauces and cans the tomatoes, just as his mother did. “We make the same sauce she made out of those tomatoes, those San Marzanos,” he says. “They’re my favorite.”
In 2019, Portaro won first-place in the Hot Peppers in Sauce category at the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival’s Canned Pepper Contest. “Sometimes we’ll get a pepperoni roll and cut it in two and put those peppers on it, then put a slice of provolone cheese and melt it in the oven.” Portaro says. “Oh boy, that makes a good sandwich.”
“We never went hungry,” Portaro says of a childhood defined by scant financial resources, hard work in the garden and plenty of delicious meals. Like many immigrants in north-central West Virginia, his father worked grueling hours in the coal mines for little pay. “We didn’t have nothing,” he says. His family might not have enjoyed monetary wealth, but thanks to a strong work ethic and a cultural memory of agricultural and culinary traditions, his family became rich in other ways.
The gardening, cooking and preserving methods Portaro learned from his parents have been passed down to his own children, who help him with planting, staking, trellising and harvesting each weekend during the growing season. This season, Portaro says the peppers and San Marzano tomatoes (top right above) struggled compared to years past, but his Roma pole beans (bottom right) were downright prolific. “I don’t do a lot, but I do a little,” Portaro said when I caught up with him over the phone this summer. “I’m 99-and-a-half years old now.”
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.