Storied Seeds

When it comes to matters of wine and seeds, I'm anything but practical (well, when it comes to most matters, I'm anything but practical). There was a time, when I served wine from his & her cellars as a private chef in St. Tropez, that my choice of wines was dictated by the components of a dish, a Wine Spectator rating or the fashionable wine region d'jour. These days, I'm guided by admittedly more emotional principles. Namely beauty (a winemaker who has the good taste to create a lovely label must certainly care about the quality of their wine), narrative (a captivating story or name) and vintage (...the best improve with age).

It occurred to me today that I apply the same principles to choosing seeds for my garden. I give an almost romantic significance to the name, origin and story of each herb or vegetable before I decide to give it a home. With seeds, it is the narrative that seems to win in the end. My imagination is easily fed by the epic names of many Heirloom (seeds introduced before the 1940s) varieties, like Russian Giant (garlic), Purple Beauties (Peppers) and Sultan's Crescent (beans), that seem to harken an Edenic paradise I pine to create.

My latest acquisition, a Raphanus Sativa from the gardens of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, is a perfect illustration of impracticality. May weather dictates that radish season is almost over, and my garden has not an inch of spare soil for growing them until the fall. Yet I couldn't resist. The timeless illustration on the seed packet had me captivated, as did the fact that the seeds hail from the curatorial collection of Jefferson's 200-plus-year-old gardens that included 330 varieties of vegetables. Add to that the name, China Rose (Winter Radish), which conjures an Audrey Hepburn delicacy, and I'm taken. Completely and utterly without the will to resist.

It's all I can do to actually plant these seeds, and risk tarnishing the little packet with my dirty fingers. I'd far rather frame them, immortalize them along with a half-a-dozen sentimental wine labels that include a bottle I drank with my brother on a rooftop in Athens, the pink champagne from my 21st birthday and the first bottle of Chateau Neuf du Pape my father gave me that we drank on the eve of my wedding. But Jefferson, though poetic, was a man who wrote canons for practicality. Practicality dictates that I will plant the seeds, and in time, they will become a part of a simple, satisfying meal for my beloved and me.

In the meantime, I'm happy to walk my fine line between food and fairy tale as I discover new seed sources like Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Twin Leaf (the label behind the 50,000 packets of seeds produced at Jefferson's Monticello). And, as it turns out, my principles aren't altogether impractical after all. Heirloom seeds (aka. Vintage), which produce the kind of ugly beauties that romantics go crazy for in farmer's markets, are often more flavorful and heartier than modern-day seeds, having survived centuries of natures wrath. A practically perfect reason to stick to my principles.

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Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.