Heritage Foods: The Importance of Biodiversity
One man’s seed-saving pilgrimage builds connections and community around plant diversity and local, heritage foods.
“Taste, Memory” by David Buchanan follows the experiences of modern-day farmers and seed savers who are exploring and re-inventing healthy food production by protecting the biodiversity of our rarest heritage foods.
Cover Courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing
In Taste, Memory (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), author David Buchanan unravels the stories of his personal journey with slightly obsessive gardeners, passionate cooks, environmentalists and food activists—all leaders in the movement to defend agricultural biodiversity. Discover how his own growing project in Portland, Maine, works to explore the balance between heirloom varieties and a healthy food system by matching plant and animal biodiversity with the demands of the land and climate. The following excerpt on the importance of biodiversity among our heritage foods is taken from chapter 1, “Seeds of an Idea.”
August 1992. Emerenciana Sandoval greets me with a radiant smile in her kitchen and asks if she can make me breakfast. “¿Comer?” she asks as she mimes eating eggs and tortillas with her fingers. “Are you hungry?” her daughter-in-law, Catalina, adds. Of course they know this is a formality. I’m always hungry, and each of us understands that it wouldn’t be polite for me to say no. I’ve tried to refuse many times, knowing they have no money and many mouths to feed, but somehow a plate piled high always winds up in front of my place at the counter. They worry about me, living in the foothills of Washington State's North Cascade Mountains forty miles away, without a resident mother or wife to feed me and watch out for my well-being. Emerenciana warns me to beware of devils—something to think about while walking alone through the woods on dark nights.
Behind their home is a large garden ringed with nodding sunflowers where they grow plants like lettuce and tomatoes, herbs, summer squash, corn, beans, and potatoes. I stop by whenever possible to help and to learn from their experience. Everything about food production is new to me. Looking back while writing this nearly twenty years later, I recall their two sheep and the fire pit Emerenciana’s son Miguel used to cook the ram when it began to harass the children; their machete-built chicken coop, made from salvaged dimensional lumber but resembling something straight from the highlands of Oaxaca; and the perch we caught together in the alkaline lakes a few miles from their home in Okanogan, Washington. I think of the corn and bean seeds they and their friends carried with them from Mexico, and the care they took to maintain food traditions while working long hours in nearby orchards and packing houses. These are some of my earliest gardening memories.
The night before, the Sandovals set out a cot on the screened porch for me while everyone else slept wherever they found space in the two-bedroom house. Preschooler Leticia usually curls up on the couch next to her grandmother, whereas Adan and his brother Marcus share a bedroom with their parents. In the morning the blinds are pulled and it’s hot inside, noisy and crowded as the women prepare breakfast and the three children play with their father. Marcus, the oldest at six and deaf from birth, angles for my attention by hanging on to my shirt and signing frantically. We eat breakfast together without hurry. Later Miguel throws a bag in his Isuzu truck and drives away to the orchards, dropping Catalina off at a packing shed on the way. Adan and Marcus catch a bus to school, while Emerenciana stays home to make tortillas and watch over Leticia.
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