The language of heirloom and heritage is commonplace in gardening circles. Typically, what’s being discussed are plant varieties that have stood the text of time without modern chemical and genetic modifications. Think of tomatoes and the rapturous expressions that cross many of our faces when naming off some of those special, time-tested varietals like Cherokee Purple, San Marzano, Green Zebra, Brandywine Pink, Black Krim, Moskvich, Amish Paste, and so many others. These are the tomatoes that they don’t grow for the supermarket, the ones that have their own unique personalities and refuse to be tamed down into the blandness of mass-produced, mass-marketed produce.
It’s not surprising that most of us who take our home gardening seriously feel a certain affinity toward these old chestnuts of the horticultural milieu. After all, if you’re going to put yourself through all of the hard work of growing the plants, why settle for the same old mediocre produce that you could just buy (and not enjoy)? No, you don’t simply grow tomatoes – you grow *good* tomatoes, or sweet corn, or cucumbers, or summer squash, or whatever it is that you’d like to plant. There are massive seed catalogues out there from companies like High Mowing, Baker Creek, and Seed Savers Exchange that are specially designed for folks who like to grow these heirloom plants. Plenty of our garden is taken up by them – there are only a few plants not representing heirloom varietals in our garden.
That’s one meaning of heirloom in gardening. I’ve been pondering another, as I’ve considered these noble plants that have stood the test of time, as well as my own roots. I’ve planted my own, more personal heirlooms in our garden, those plants that carry the rich flavor of my own heritage and sense of place. I can’t imagine having a garden without collards or okra, for example – they’re too much a part of who I am not to include. And I say that deliberately; they’re not just food for me, but an intrinsic part of how I understand myself as a person with deep roots in Southern soil. They’re foods whose history in this nation helps tell the story of the land which nurtured my ancestors…and they tell the full story, ugliness and all.
After all, both of these foods’ stories are caught up in the story of slavery in this country; okra may have originated in West Africa (and has certainly been cultivated there for a very long time if its actual origins lie elsewhere), and it made its way to this side of the Atlantic along with ships full of West Africans – kidnapped, abused, and sold into slavery. It was grown by those slaves in the garden plots allotted them, and eventually poor whites in the South learned to cook and eat the green, seedy, lightly slimy pods.
Similarly, collard greens were a subsistence food of slaves and poor black folk in the South that crossed the cultural divide onto white plates because of their ease of growing, nutritional value, and delicious taste if you know what to do with them. Michael Twitty, one of my favorite food writers, has an excellent blog post on collards that’s worth your time to read; you can find it here. Collards are a truly global food, eaten in lots of places by lots of people from a lot of cultural backgrounds, but it does bear acknowledging that their history in this country is firmly rooted in the history of the African American community.
The complicated dance of Southern food ways, as a descendant of a longtime white Southern family, is the two-step of both embracing the “poor people’s food” that has been gracing Teague and Thompson tables for three centuries (or better) while also naming that “Southern food” is largely West African food that’s evolved through the filters of different geography, slavery, economic impoverishment and exploitation, and cross-pollination with the Scottish, English, Irish, Welsh, French, and German colonists and settlers of the South. Like or not, white people didn’t invent Southern cuisine; they learned to love what their African descent neighbors cooked, sometimes out of economic necessity, then put some twists of their own on it (fried chicken is essentially West African flavors plus a Scottish cooking technique). That doesn’t make this food not the food of my poor white Southern ancestors, but it does mean that I need to name its whole story…and that black folk play a huge role in it, and I owe them a debt of gratitude for it. I can best express that gratitude, at least in my writing, by not whitewashing them out of the story of Southern food. Southern food is a beautiful thing, a cultural heirloom, a culinary heritage worth celebration, and a gift to the world, and we would not have it without people of African descent.
This culinary heritage – slow cooked greens, black eyed peas, okra in stews or fried crispy, a little bit of fatty pork odds-n-ends, cornbread, red pepper flakes and hot sauce, catfish and fried chicken and barbecue – is the unique product of all of these historical forces, and every “meat and three” plate from a roadside joint tells the story of the southern United States better than any textbook…and far better than phony baloney “Moonlight and Magnolias” tropes. We do well, those of us of Southern extraction, to remember this and help ourselves to another bowl of butter beans instead of invoking Gone With the Wind.
There’s another piece of the heirloom/heritage pie in here for me, too, and that’s the plain truth that you only have to go back two generations in my family to be on the farm again, and that (at least on my dad’s side) a century ago literally everyone whose blood flows in my veins worked the land for their daily bread. Colleen’s family, too, has some deep roots in the deep topsoil of the Midwest. My garden isn’t simply mine; it’s theirs, in a way, because it is their story living itself out in my own life. It’s the family tradition, you might say, the only way I really know how to be. My own life, my own story isn’t separate from where, and who, I’ve come from. This garden, this act of tending the earth and eating the fruits of my brow’s sweat raised into a harvest by the mysterious grace of God’s providence, is my heritage – a living heirloom, feeding our bodies and our souls with the story of peoples and nations told around tables stretching from the Scottish Highlands and the hills of Alsace to the West African coast, Alabama farmland, the rolling prairies of Texas and the cornfields of Illinois….and on beyond my generation into the future.