Heritage Foods: The Importance of Biodiversity

One man’s seed-saving pilgrimage builds connections and community around plant diversity and local, heritage foods.

| November 2012

  • Taste Memory
    “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

  • Taste Memory

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.

I grab a straw hat and head for my truck, parked in the shade of a large willow tree. It’s a 1970 Chevy half-ton pickup nearly the size of my house, a guilty pleasure for a young guy trying to live lightly off the grid. Although I’d purchased it for $600 to use as a farm truck, gradually it came to replace my less-reliable car. A friend of mine recently tore its door off while backing up at high speed over uneven ground, catching it on a stump as he leaned out to see where he was going with his good eye, but he fixed it by bolting in another door from the salvage yard that sort of fit and nearly matched. With a new engine dropped in by a local mechanic for $1,400, this truck—nearly as old as I am—roars along good as new.

My boots mirror the truck in spirit. They’re covered in leather patches stitched artlessly by a local “cobbler”—mismatched suede, cowhide, whatever scraps he had lying around. If at first it seemed that he’d ruined my favorite thrift-store boots, soon it became clear that instead he’d transformed them into folk art. Wearing beat-up cowboy boots used to feel like an affectation to me, a displaced easterner, but the year before they’d prevented a nasty fall down Miguel’s well. After I’d climbed into the concrete casing to check on a malfunctioning irrigation pump, a wooden ladder rung snapped under my weight, throwing me backward. One of my heels miraculously caught on the steel bar that bisected the well to secure the pump, about three feet below the broken rung. I landed on it light as a feather, hooked on the bar with one foot, my hands pressed against the smooth concrete walls in the half-light. Try that in a pair of running shoes.

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