Thursday, July 14, 2011

Going, Going, Gone?

by Kathleen Ernst

Heirloom_1 cover One of the great things about writing novels is having the opportunity to explore interesting topics along the way. Since my Chloe Ellefson mysteries are set at historic sites, I have all kinds of opportunities to introduce readers to aspects of the museum world.

When planning book 2, The Heirloom Murders, I decided to shine a light on the role historic sites play in preserving old agricultural traditions. Interpreters at living history sites help perpetuate not just old methods, but historic livestock breeds and antique varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

fair flowers

It’s a pretty big deal. According to the USDA, we’ve lost ninety-seven percent of the vegetable varieties once grown in the United States. People have gotten out of the habit of saving their own seeds, passing them along, swapping with neighbors. Large seed companies have overtaken small local ones. Vegetables grown today are largely chosen for their ability to look good after being shipped long distances. Luscious-tasting varieties that didn’t look pretty were discarded. We’ve lost a lot of flavor and diversity along the way.

fair Pewaukee apple

Even worse, some of those old varieties might have been the only type to withstand the onslaught of some new pest or disease. In The Heirloom Murders, Chloe explains the situation to cop Roelke McKenna this way:

Chloe tapped her pencil against her clipboard. “You’ve heard of the Irish potato famine, right? Mass starvation, mostly because a blight hit the potato crop?”

“Yeah. Lots of Irish people came over here.”

“Right. All the potatoes in Europe succumbed to the disease. But in the Andes, people were growing hundreds or thousands of potato varieties, and some of them proved to be resistant to the blight. If that hadn’t been the case, we wouldn’t be eating mashed potatoes for dinner every Thanksgiving.”

fair pocket melons

I didn’t know anything about heirloom gardening until I went to work in the historic sites biz myself, way back when. Now I grow heirlooms in my own gardens. Mostly vegetables, but a few flowers too.

OWW Fair 010

My first goal for any novel is to tell a good story, about characters that readers will come to care about. But if a couple of readers get intrigued by old varieties of vegetables, fruits, or flowers too…well, that would be pretty darn cool.

All photos were taken at an agricultural fair held at Old World Wisconsin, which has an extensive historic agriculture program. For more information about heirloom seeds, check out Seed Savers Exchange.

10 comments:

Robin Allen said...

Interesting post, Kathleen. I had no idea so many varietals have been lost over the years. We're paying a high price for convenience. I saw a scary documentary called "The Future of Food" about Monsanto and genetically modified corn. I stopped eating corn because of it.

I don't garden, mostly because it's a lot of work and I'm pretty lazy. I mean plants need to be watered, like ALL the time.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Kathleen! I love learning something new when I'm reading fiction, and I'm sure many of your readers will enjoy learning something about the problem of disappearing agricultural species. Maybe some of them will even be inspired to start heirloom gardens of their own!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Robin, don't get me started on genetically modified mega-crops! And yes, unfortunately those pesky little plants do want water. :>)

Beth, that idea makes me happy!

Darrell James said...

Very interesting, Kathleen! I guess I'm going to have to study the food I eat more closely.

Keith Raffel said...

Next month starts apple season. I love going to the farmer's market and trying every single heirloom apple variety as they show up. Most of them do not store well, but right off the tree -- so much better than the Fujis and Delicious apples found in supermarkets.

Cricket McRae said...

Oh, Kathleen, this is a subject near and dear to me. I grow as many of my vegetables as I can, from heirloom seeds when possible. Most have been great, though there have been some interesting failures, too. The decreasing diversity of vegetable varieties in places like India because of Monsanto moving in with their patented seeds makes me crazy. But I do love Seed Savers Exchange (though I'm very bad about saving seeds myself). Good for you educating your readers while entertaining them as well!

Jessie Chandler said...

Kathleen, very interesting and thought provoking post!!! And it made me hungry :-) Food Rules, too, is a good book about getting back to the basics. The future of food is scary, and the more we understand about stuff like this, the better of we are.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Darrell - you can start slowly! And what fun it will be.

Keith - apples are one of my favorites, too. You've got me ready for pie season.

Cricket - each year I try a few new varieties. Like your experience, sometimes I don't get what I expected. More often I get something interesting. I'm trying to save more of my own seeds, although I get too busy also.

Jessie - I haven't read that one. I'll look for it!

Jess Lourey said...

Cricket and Kathleen, this is also a subject near and dear to me. Kathleen, I know you write a good story first but love that you include globally important stuff in it, too. Makes your books a great read as well as a great gift.

Jess Lourey said...

p.s. Food, Inc., is also another great film on this subject.