Monday, August 5, 2013

A Review of David Buchanan's Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter

These days I spend a fair amount of time reading books for review with a few thrown in for pleasure. One of the latter is Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter by David Buchanan (Chelsea Green, 2012). After reading an excerpt on Chelsea Green's website, I was so entranced by Buchanan's writing that I bought myself a copy. (Full disclosure: I regularly receive Chelsea Green books for review.)

I read much of it on our flight from Chicago to Tokyo this past March, which speaks volumes about Buchanan's ability to tell a story. The only other author to hold my attention on that interminable flight was Philip Pullman, and Buchanan manged it with nary a fantastical being in sight. Taste, Memory explores what place heirlooms and the raising of them have in this modern world of farming and food. Of particular interest for farmer types like me is his exploration of whether or not it's practical.

Most people, especially anyone reading this, is thinking "Of course it matters." with a few including a why-do-you-even-need-to-ask snort or, at the very least, raised eyebrows. But I think Buchanan's question is extremely relevant. Even as people begin pushing for non-GMO foods and farmers markets expand, those who do the growing face the same outrageous odds they always have.

Farming is hard work that pays little. It's a job done not because one imagines finding fame and fortune, but out of a love for land and food. It's a 24-7 job with an impatient product, only a smattering of days off, and has Mother Nature as an unpredictable business partner. It's easy to see why few people choose the field (pun intended) and why many farmers opt for seeds and crops that grow reliably and with relative ease. 

Heirlooms are old, often traditional varieties grown for flavor and regional suitability. This tomato or peach grows well in this valley. This cucumber is a favorite in this county. Buchanan mentions the Marshall, a nineteenth century strawberry that barely makes it from field to market, but with an incredible flavor. Some heirlooms are disease resistant and others are not. Some may not be pretty but they make a mean pickle or a good pie. More often than not heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties cross-bred by generations of farmers who thought this or that breed mixed with another might prove interesting. Seeds were saved and passed down and over fence lines. The stories are countless and fascinating, and as an avid grower and collector Buchanan sweeps us along with many a tale.

Buchanan also takes readers on various adventures as he explores avenues for turning his passion for heirlooms into a viable business venture. He searches for a legendary cider tree and taste tests experimental homemade ciders. He visits potential farm sites and joins meetings convened for the purpose of selecting fruits or vegetables for inclusion in Slow Food's Ark of Taste. Admittedly, there are times when Taste, Memory feels like a farmer version of Eat, Pray, Love, where we move with the writer through various levels of enlightenment, blah, blah, blah. Despite these foodlier-than-thou moments I still liked it.

Buchanan presents as frank, friendly, enthusiastic, slightly bumbling, passionate, and thoughtful. He admits his mistakes (building a house and garden in the wrong spot) and shares what he's learned (growing for market can be lucrative but reduces the number of varieties he's inclined to plant). He tries to be realistic about making his dream come true, always stepping back to assess what he's doing and why. A tale of a visit with a realtor to a beautiful old farmstead as he searches for land is heart-breaking as he reads and researches and calculates the lingering effects of chemicals on the land. In the end, he makes a very different choice. 

What I liked best, though, about Taste, Memory is that Buchanan's final answer as to whether or not heirlooms are worth the effort is cautiously affirmative. He's a good example of gut instinct mixed with careful reflection and practical thinking. He is a passionate but cautious farmer, a fine example for all of us overly-enthusiastic growers who plant two rows too many or bring home twelve too many seedlings.

We leave Buchanan still finding his way, continuing to set out the stones of the path even as he's walking it, still contemplating the best way to bring these old varieties to life for his customers. His theory is that by sharing these plants with others (by selling them in one form or another) he increases the variety's chance of survival and plants a seed (pun intended) of heirloom passion. He's also increasing the diversity of locally grown edible crops, which can only be a positive thing. His continuing experiment takes a surprising number of forms: nursery stock, smoothies, cider, seedlings.

Buchanan also makes the case that doing things on a large scale isn't the right answer. Old models of large scale monoculture don't work in so many ways for the soil, the farmer, the eater, and the local economy. Monoculture means an eventual need for sprays and fertilizers to fend off disease and pests that can run rampant in such environments. Sprays and fertilizers damage soil, water, and air used by everyone above and below the soil including wildlife, pollinators, microbes, the farmer, and the neighboring community. The very soil the farmer relies on, the gift bestowed by previous generations and Mother Nature, dies. The consumer loses another source of local food and flavor.

Buchanan, thankfully, shows a viable alternative. Small diverse farms are more resilient economically and biologically. If one variety of strawberry or peach fails, another is there to fill the space. Buchanan grows enough to turn a profit, but not so much that he stretches himself too thin. Make no mistake: Buchanan is busy researching, weeding, sorting, brewing, planting, writing, photographing, harvesting, preserving, but not perversely so. He's not getting rich, but he's making a living. He's also happy and enjoying himself. Sweet strawberries, fun at the farmers market, and cider sampling – what's not to like?

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