Nerding Out With an Heirloom Seed Catalog

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Even if you don't have a green thumb, the Baker Creek Seed Catalog is a fascinating read. Bear with me. Now in its 15th year, the catalog contains listings for 1,450 seeds for vegetables, flowers, and herbs from more than 70 countries, many of them with super-interesting backstories. For a food history nerd such as myself, just reading entries at random is enough transport you to the markets of nineteenth century Paris or Thomas Jefferson's gardens at Monticello, emphasizing the way food acts as a through-line between present and past civilizations.

See also: Revisiting My Side of the Mountain in the Locavore Era
Re-Visiting the Hangtown Fry, the Dish That Epitomizes Gold Rush California

The catalog is put together by Jere and Emilee Gettle, who also run seed bank stores in Petaluma and Wethersfield, Connecticut. A few years back, Jere Gettle was described in the New York Times as the "Indiana Jones of seeds," and it's true -- he travels the world searching for rare seeds that go far beyond the vegetables sold in most supermarkets across the United States. Distributing these seeds is a way to preserve history and bring it back to life.

Take pumpkins, for example. You could grow the Illinois pumpkin, also known as the White Crookneck Pumpkin, which according to the catalog was originally planted by Abraham Lincoln's parents on an Illinois farm. Or maybe you prefer time-traveling back to the Belle Époque by growing the Rouge Vif D'Etampes pumpkin, a French variety that was "the most common pumpkin in the Central Market in Paris back in the 1880's."

Some of the plants have deep roots in American history, like the pole bean called the Cherokee Trail of Tears, which, according to the catalog, was "brought from Tennessee by the Cherokee people as they were marched to Oklahoma by the Federal Government in 1839 over the infamous Trail of Tears." Some go even further back, like the Ancient watermelon, the seeds of which were "found in a clay pot in a cave in the Southwest USA" -- presumably left unattended for hundreds of years.

A few of the seeds don't have the long sweep of history, but instead tell smaller stories of domestic life. Ruby Wallace's Old Time White cucumber has been "grown for over 50 years by Mrs. Ruby Wallace of Dallas, North Carolina." (Mrs. Wallace got the original seed from her mother-in law, Myrtle.) Or there's the Tennessee Dancing gourds, sent to the catalog by Mr. Junior G., of Primm Springs, Tennessee, whose "Ma had said that when she was going to school, kids would bring 'em to play with. Dancing gourds spin just like a top."

If you plan to do more than just armchair travel with the catalog, you should check out the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library's 14th Annual Seed Swap next month, when a network of farmers and community gardeners get together to talk crops and swap seeds. As both BASIL and the Baker Creek Seed Catalog point out on their websites, preserving heirloom seeds is a growing concern in this era of industrial farming and increasing reliance on GMO crops. But it's also a fun and tasty way to connect to the past.

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I pretty much carry the catalog back and forth to work with me to flip through on breaks, short or long. We need to come up with a term for seed nerds, it seems.  Jere Gettle, with his single-mindedness from an early age, would be like the head seed nerd - kinda like with Bill Gates and computers, yes?

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