Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Heirloom activist: when it comes to preserving traditional varieties of fruits and vegetables, Amy Goldman is la force of nature.(groundbreaker).

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If you've looked at any of Amy Goldman's beautiful, authoritative books on heirloom produce, you have a mental picture of what her Thanksgiving table will look like.

She says this year she'll probably decorate with cheese pumpkins, which resemble a wheel of cheese with an exterior that looks likes terra-cotta--too fibrous and coarse for eating but beautiful to stack. For a side dish, she may cook a favorite winter squash such as 'Musquee de Provence', a variety that was introduced to American gardeners 111 years ago and, as one of her books describes it, the "color of milk chocolate and just as addictive." Goldman says she thinks of Thanksgiving as a harvest festival, and the holiday reflects much of what she has been doing in the ground, in print, and in public for three decades.

While scientists and agricultural experts continue to press the case for genetic diversity, and organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange and a few mail-order companies (including Burpee) do their part to collect, store, and disseminate seeds of heirloom plants, Goldman has a more direct approach to promoting precious varieties from the past. She makes us want to grow them and eat them. Cultivating edibles and cooking the harvest have been passions for Goldman since she was a teenager growing up on the North Shore of Long Island. With both parents (her mother a gardener herself) offering encouragement, she sprouted seeds in a greenhouse, grew tomatoes, corn, melons, squash, and other vegetables, and planted an orchard and grape vines. Later, while working as a clinical psychologist in upstate New York, she always managed to have a plot in Rhinebeck bursting with good things to eat. In 1990, after her leeks and red onions won blue ribbons at the Dutchess County Fair, there was no stopping her. Five years later, her produce hauled in 38 blue ribbons, making her the fair's grand-champion winner, thanks in large part, she says, to "mastering the growing of squash," the competition's largest category of vegetables.



Then she fell in love with heirlooms, those often curiously named open-pollinated varieties of fruits and vegetables passed down by generations of farmers and gardeners which have typically been shoved aside in the stampede toward produce developed for commercially appealing looks and durability in shipping. She credits her conversion to the seminal 1990 book on preserving genetic diversity, Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney. Reading it, Goldman says, turned her into a "card-carrying seed saver, collector, and advocate" of heirloom edibles. As Goldman says, "Fowler's and Mooney's warnings about the dangers of genetic uniformity and seed monopoly were prescient. To create a more bountiful future, we need to preserve the vast genetic reservoir of food crops that is our heritage. Extinction happens when seeds are not passed along to the next generation, when the new replaces the old, and the old is not conserved."

In 1997, Goldman won a Golden Trowel award from Garden Design magazine for her vegetable garden, and soon the avid gardener went from being the subject of articles to being a contributor, writing articles on melons, peppers, and cabbages. A few years later, Goldman asked New York City--based fine-arts photographer Victor Schrager to collaborate on a book about heirloom melons based on what she had learned growing them in her 1 1/4 acres of gardens in Rhinebeck. Schrager improvised a studio in Goldman's barn, where she would cut the melons, taste them, and, says Schrager, "pronounce them fabulous or fit only for the local pigs." Schrager would arrange the winners on sawhorses and shoot them with a large-format wooden Deardorff view camera.


Melons for the Passionate Grower came out in 2002 to instant acclaim, garnering such recognition as the American Horticultural Society's Annual Garden Book Award.

The melon book also staked out Goldman's strong advocacy for heirlooms. She disparaged many modern hybrids as "the green bowling balls that pass for watermelons or the melons posing as cantaloupes in grocery stores across America." And she makes the point that sublime taste and fascinating histories are only part of the reason to grow heirloom varieties: "We need their germplasm," she writes. "Without their genetic diversity, we will be prey to ever more virulent pests and diseases."

Goldman's second book, The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower's Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes and Gourds, published in 2004, had an equally earnest mission: "to catalog these marvels before they disappear."


But Goldman's most ambitious work, six years in the making, is The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World's Most Beautiful Fruit, published in 2008. Of nearly 6,000 estimated cultivated tomato varieties, she grew over 1,000 different types, 200 of which made it into the book. The work reflects Goldman's nearly lifelong aversion to standard supermarket hybrid tomatoes, which she describes as "a tool of industry and the market economy." Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are "designed to be homegrown ... living legacies ... valued by generations of gardeners." As the book amply attests, heirloom varieties are as impressive to look at as they are to taste: the yellow and green stripes of 'Green Zebra', or the stunning orange, yellow, and pink flesh of 'Gold Medal'. Often their names offer tantalizing hints of the cultivars' rich histories: 'Nebraska Wedding', for example.

Cary Fowler, Goldman's early role model and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, wrote the preface for The Heirloom Tomato. "How, then, can we ensure that these wonderful varieties do not go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo?" he writes. "We are in the midst of a mass extinction event in agriculture at precisely a moment in history when diversity for further adaptation is most needed."

Over the years, Goldman's activism has extended beyond gardening and writing. In 1991, she became a member of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit formed in 1975 to save and share heirloom seeds--and a major source of her seeds when she first started growing heirlooms. She's been a Seed Savers board member since 2001, and in 2007 she became chairperson of the board. Since Goldman came on as board chair, membership in the organization has significantly increased. She says she is especially proud of Seed Savers' contribution of hundreds of heirlooms to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Chiseled into a mountain, the Doomsday Vault, as it is colloquially known, stores seed collections from around the world as a safeguard against the extinction of the genes of plants that may be valuable in the future.

This fall and winter, Goldman is continuing to support the work of Seed Savers and doing book tours as she develops ideas for another book. Last spring and summer, while researching, she filled her garden with some 400 varieties of eggplant: round, oval, bat-shaped, purple, green, white, from 'Antigua' to 'Zebrina'. But by August, she realized, "My heart wasn't in eggplant." She scrapped that idea. She's now firming up her planting plan for next year, which will include the usual melons, squash, and tomatoes plus, we can hope, other heirlooms that can form the basis of a next book based on her heart and hands.

Heirlooms on the Block


For evidence of just how highly esteemed heirloom fruits and vegetables have become these days, you need look no further than Sotheby's in New York City. There, on a late September afternoon, an auctioneer stepped to the podium to sell just that: prized 'Ozette' potatoes, 'Lady Godiva' squash, 'Isis Candy Cherry' tomatoes, packets of open-pollinated heirloom seeds, and other rare treasures. A single crate of heirloom vegetables sold for $1,000. The auction event, "The Art of Farming," was a day of seminars and a reception and dinner--organized with the help of advocates like Amy Goldman, and farm-to-table movement visionaries--to raise money for GrowNYC's New Farmer Development Project, which supports and educates immigrants with agricultural experience to become local farmers, and for the Sylvia Center at Katchkie Farm, a New York-based nonprofit that strives to teach children good nutrition through hands-on experience with gardening and farming. Given Sotheby's involvement, much was made of the heirloom vegetables' artistic, sculptural appeal. Not everything on the block that day was edible. Among the lots was a limited-edition set of Amy Goldman's bronzed squashes.


Source Citation
Marken, Bill. "Heirloom activist: when it comes to preserving traditional varieties of fruits and vegetables, Amy Goldman is la force of nature." Garden Design Nov.-Dec. 2010: 64+. General OneFile. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.
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