There are a lot of reasons to buy another gardening book: maybe it discusses a variety that most books forget; maybe it offers some unique tips on how to grow your favorites. But when you’ve already got shelves full of gardening books, the real reason to buy yet another one is when it is, as Simon Rickard’s “Heirloom Vegetables” is, not only both of these things but above all, a beautiful book filled with beautiful stories about heirloom produce.
“The main purpose of this book is to tell some of the interesting stories about heirloom vegetables,” Rickard writes on one of the first pages of “Heirloom Vegetables.” “As in all good stories, the plot jumps around a bit.”
So begins a journey into the world of vegetables — and people — because, as Rickard says, “Vegetables are human creations.”
That may be a tough pill to swallow for those of us who like thinking of nature as what happens when humans aren’t sticking our fingers in it, but Rickard’s point of view is both intriguing and truthful.
In its first chapter, the book delves into a lengthy definition of what, exactly, an heirloom vegetable is — and what it isn’t: “‘Pure’ and untouched by the hand of man.”
“Heirloom vegetables are entirely the work of human hands,” he writes. “True, nature originally created the prototypes of vegetables, but humans have spent thousands of years customizing them and pimping them up.”
Throughout the chapters of his book, Rickard details several examples of this customization. Each chapter focuses on an overarching family — peas or nightshades or gourds — and explores not only the ‘pure,’ original incarnation of some of our favorite veggies, but also the varieties that were carefully tended to by our ancestors, the farmers and gardeners who were able to seize genetic opportunities to make vegetables work for them.
“Our ancestors found the one weird potato plant with extra large tubers growing in the field of wildlings, and kept its tubers back to see what would happen,” Rickard writes. “They noticed the strange new grain with large, non-shattering seed heads, and saved its seed for next year.”
Through his prose, the reader learns how and where these varieties were created, what they taste like, and how they have been further modified to create new and exciting sub-varieties. The journey of their creation is one defined by a sustainable relationship, a back-and-forth, a give-and-take that has defined most of our relationship with vegetables, up until the modern industrialization of agriculture. It is this element of our relationship with vegetables that Rickard seeks to nourish with these stories, and it is an intriguing approach in the current media climate, where a completely different sort of genetic modification is gracing headlines more often than not.
The book is much more than a simple gardening guide, though it does offer a few tips for sustaining Rickard’s favorite heirloom varieties. This is, above all, a book for a lover of plants and vegetables, for those who seek to discover their history, and for those who are intrigued by the relationship that humans and vegetables have sustained for centuries.
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Image care of Penguin Books