The World In a Seed
William Woys Weaver is the horticultural equivalent of the book memorizers of "Fahrenheit 451." The characters of Ray Bradbury's novel seared the texts of forbidden books into their memories to save them from the fires of a police state. William Weaver and his fellow seed savers are preserving fruits and vegetables against the homogenizing pressures of agribusiness.
"Seeds represent entire civilizations, miniaturized to fit into the palm of our hand," he says. When a venerable seed variety perishes, as with the loss of a valuable manuscript, human culture dies by degrees.
One of America's foremost food historians, Weaver lives in a partially restored 1805 inn on what once was the main route between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Along one side of his house is an English garden. In the back are pots containing a fruit paradise of quinces, medlars, lemons, pomegranates, citrons, even a limequat that apparently makes a mean marmalade. Down a slope from the front of the house, however, is the real treasure; a succession of raised beds containing a colorful riot of vegetables and flowers.
"It's a seed garden," Weaver explains without a hint of apology in his voice, "not a Martha-Stewart-kind-of-beautiful garden."
Different varieties are placed in such a way as to diminish the likelihood of unintended cross-breeding and to ensure that the subsequent seeds will yield predictable results.
The garden is rich in both history and geography. Weaver shows me a white ovoid vegetable: the original eggplant brought from India to England where it received its English name. I try a citrus-accented ground cherry that comes in its own papery wrapper. There's a little purple potato from Switzerland, a sprawling cardoon of Tours, his own breeds of tomatoes and dahlias. Colonial Williamsburg and other historical recreations routinely hit up Weaver for authentic produce of the period, such as an 18th-century squash grown from seeds passed down by a Delaware community descended from the Nannacoke Indians.
In one corner of the garden grows an Ole Pepperpot pepper, the seeds of which he found preserved in a baby food jar in the bottom of his grandmother's deep freezer. In the 19th century, the African-American community used this pepper to create pepperpot soup, a Philadelphia-area specialty. Weaver's grandfather received the seeds from his friend Horace Pippin, the great African-American painter, and today the variety flourishes in Weaver's garden. "If I could only find the portrait Pippin did of my father," he says, "I could finally restore my kitchen."
Because of the large investments of labor and money, it is "probably the most expensive garden in Pennsylvania," Weaver laments. "I used to complain to my grandmother about the cost of the garden. And she said, 'why are you doing it?' 'I like the garden,' I said. So she said, 'Just take the money out of the equation then.'"
The seed garden's diversity and sense of history mirrors Weaver's wide-ranging professional interests. Encouraged to write by Alexandra Tolstoy, the daughter of the great Russian novelist, Weaver went on to study international relations and architecture before seizing on food writing to pay the bills. He is the author of definitive books on scrapple, American food ways, Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker cooking.
Jane Lear of Gourmet magazine, where Weaver is a contributing editor, likens him to a culinary Google – "an invaluable resource of information" whether providing information on heirloom vegetables or, for a Gourmet article on artichokes, the intriguing scrap of information that Marilyn Monroe was once crowned artichoke queen of 1948. Weaver has a novelist's flair for capturing the flavor and drama of food. "He's describing these tomatoes and you just want to rip them off the page and eat them," Lear says.
Weaver's life work is an example of connectedness, a term he uses in his book "America Eats" (1989) to describe the intricate relationships between growers, cooks and communities. Each of his projects somehow connects to his own genealogy. His books on Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker cooking celebrate that part of his family that has lived in Pennsylvania for at least 13 generations. His annotations of a book on Polish medieval cooking connect to his Polish side, represented by his middle name, Woys. And his work on seeds is a direct continuation of his grandfather's seed-saving efforts.
"When I first got into my grandfather's collection, I didn't know what I was doing," he tells me as we tour the gardens, which were re-created according to their original 1830s design. "This survived the first round of ignorance."
Much of Weaver's writing is devoted to the context in which food is grown and eaten, so he is particularly attuned to political contexts. He has written about the boycott recipes of 19th-century American abolitionists who refused to use ingredients produced by slave labor; the challenges of writing about Polish national cuisine in a Marxist country; and the nonviolent approach to nature of the Quakers. His approach to food, like that of MFK Fisher before him, embodies a culinary ecology whereby nothing edible is wasted, which in part explains his fondness for the sausage-like scrapple. But much of his writing inevitably returns to that essential kernel of truth: the seed.
Seeds, like books, are repositories of information. They contain important genetic material that can replenish stocks damaged by disease. When blight hit the U.S. corn crop in the 1970s, genes from a disease-resistant wild variety of maize in Mexico, which was incidentally down to its last 25 acres of habitat, saved the day. The Irish, as Weaver writes in "100 Vegetables and Where They Came From," were not so fortunate when blight ravaged field after field of lumper potatoes in the 1840s.
Fruit and vegetable varieties are rapidly disappearing and not simply through changes in taste or fashion. As part of its efforts to standardize trade, the European Union has outlawed the sale of thousands of heirloom varieties. Agribusiness supports monocropping to maximize efficiency. Biotechnology firms are patenting new genetically modified seeds that may well threaten older varieties through unintended crossbreeding. And seed companies are downsizing their catalogs to save money.
Four years ago, the seed company Seminis eliminated 2,000 varieties from its catalog. As Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney relate in their book on seed politics, "Shattering," nearly 90 percent of the varieties of pears and apples once grown in the United States in the 19th century are now extinct.
Weaver expresses concern about the Russet potato monoculture of McDonalds and the way Chardonnay is replacing many unusual grape varieties across Europe. It's not exactly the police state of "Fahrenheit 451," but the sheer loss of information contained in the lost seed varieties is staggering.
Inside his kitchen, as he chops green tomatoes, peppers and carrots for a Pennsylvania Dutch-style pickalilly and we sip a slightly fermented lemonade kefir with fig flavors, Weaver tells cautionary tales about seeds. He recently bought some kohlrabi seeds at a local store, and with a little sleuthing, traced the chain of ownership from the name on the packet (Miracle Grow) to the parent company (Scott) and from there to the shadowy corporations OMS Investments and Delaware Corporate Management. This is a far cry from the farmer who carefully saves seeds from one harvest to the next, strengthening ties of stewardship rather than ownership.
"We're collapsing the ownership of the land into the hands of very few people," Weaver tells me. "We're indenturing farmers in a very different way. Farmers are now indentured to the land and the bankers own the ground."
This has reduced farmers to little more than modern-day serfs or, as Weaver says, "facilitators of technologies owned by a third party," and "the ownership of seed makes it more absolute."
Farmers are dependent on large seed companies for the latest varieties of hybrid seeds, the fertilizer and pesticides that work best with them, and even the specialized machinery to harvest the crops. Five companies control 75 percent of the global vegetable seed market, according to Helena Paul and Ricarda Steinbrecher's "Hungry Corporations," and this concentration of the marketplace threatens global genetic diversity.
The new patterns of ownership add up to what Weaver calls the "new feudalism." Genetically modified seeds, because they preclude seed saving and threaten to contaminate conventional stocks, are only a new variation on an old theme.
"GMO and patented crops have shifted the economic risk to the farmer. This was like the Middle Ages when all the economic risk was shifted onto the serf," Weaver says. "It doesn't matter to Monsanto if the GM fails. You bought it. It's your problem if it fails."
In opposition to this corporate control over farmers, Weaver has emphasized "connectedness." Seeds provide one means of connecting to history and culture. Seedsaving, too, brings people together, not in a spatially defined community but in one of affinity, knitting organizations like Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa and Kokopelli in France to thousands of individual gardeners and farmers.
Seed savers range "from anarchists to the person who found Jesus in the garden," Weaver says. "The country is so divided now and this brings people together and we realize we have a common goal."
He's quick to qualify his idea. "You can get too romantic about connectedness, too gooey and touchy-feely," he says. And he points to his latest focus of research: Cyprus. Weaver hopes that through his ethnographic research and sifting of archaeological evidence, he will help to rewrite the history of the Middle Ages when Cyprus served as a key source and conduit of food ways to Europe.
"Cyprus is the ultimate break – no connectedness, no genealogical link. It's a liberating topic." And yet, Cyprus appeals precisely because it connects to many of his preoccupations as a food historian. When he's doing his research, he says, "I feel like I'm up on some elevated platform and I'm looking down on the whole Eastern Mediterranean and seeing all these connections."
I am eager to hear more about his latest research in Cyprus, but I also don't want to inadvertently poach the new material. "The more people talk about Cyprus the better," he reassures me. Weaver is as generous with information as he is with his seeds. He makes the point explicitly with a horticultural example – the dependency of corn on human propagation.
"People didn't sit on the corn," he says. "They traded it around. They shared the seed."