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An Interview with Emma Cooper, Part 2

Today we continue our conversation with Emma Cooper, author and gardener, whose latest book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, is due out on May 1st. Emma also graciously did a reading for us, which is another wonderful way to preview her work. You can also read my review. Enjoy! - JB

How did you do most of your research for the historical section? Was it part of your thesis work or other on-going research?

I wrote most of the book, including the historical section, before I went back to university to become an ethnobotanist. In 2009, Carolyn Fry brought out a lovely book in association with Kew, called The Plant Hunters, which is a potted history of plant hunting, and that was very useful for my research. It’s a topic of interest to me, so I’ve done a fair bit of reading on it!

I thought it was utterly fascinating to hear how plants wandered about. It reminded me of something Michael Pollan posits at the beginning of one of his books: did we choose the plant or did the plant choose us? (He was thinking of corn, of course.) It is an idea that stuck with me. What do you think makes these unusual edibles appealing but has kept them from becoming more popular?

This is a very interesting topic, and one I did learn more about during my dissertation research. It’s also a very complicated question. There is no simple answer. The chilli pepper, for example, was very easily adopted into cultures all over the world, and that may have been because its use as a spice was both familiar and highly prized at the time. The potato struggled, and that may have been because it was unfamiliar – the Europeans had no tuber crops at that time. The potato also suffered from associations with its poisonous relatives (although the chilli doesn’t seem to have), and got embroiled in religious arguments. Once it was adopted by the Irish it became a Catholic food, and was therefore not overly popular with the English Protestants.

The Europeans who found the New World and wanted to conquer it had an agenda, of course. They opposed any native foods (like quinoa) that had religious aspects to them, or which were particularly key to a society they were trying to dismantle. And there are still prejudices against ‘peasant’ foods. Vanilla, which was exalted by the Totonac people and demanded as tribute by the Aztecs, had a very different fate. It and chocolate, which was considered divine and used as currency, had no problem becoming popular in the wider world!

There have always been economic factors involved. Quite often new foods would be adopted by society’s elites, and then slowly filter down to the rest of the population as they became more widely available and therefore more affordable.

In Chapter 4 you write: "In short, there's a place for native plants in gardens, but it's not the veg patch." Could you elaborate on that a bit? For me, especially as I'm turning more and more towards permaculture, it seems there is plenty of room for native plants in the veg patch to, for example, support pollinators and stabilize soil. I was really shocked to read that and would like to hear more of your thoughts about that.

We may have different perspectives on this issue because we’re from different places. In the UK, it’s very hard to say what is and what isn’t a native plant. Even the ones that have been here for quite some time only arrived at the end of the last ice age. And we’re a long way from a biodiversity hot spot. We just don’t have the range of indigenous crops that you find in the Americas, for example.

The point I was trying to make in the book is that the native vs. non-native plants debate does not belong in the vegetable patch. Here in the UK, if you tried to grow a kitchen garden of native plants, you’d get pretty hungry. The research shows that non-native plants can be just as good for wildlife, and stabilize the soil and do all the things you want them to do. So my advice is to chose your plants on the basis of their utility, not their origin.

I was also surprised at the lack of photos. Was that just the pdf version?

No, you get the same book content in all of the different ebook formats, and there are no photos. There’s a real tendency these days for people to consume media in lieu of actually having an experience. We lap up cookery shows, but fewer and fewer of us bother to cook. We love nature documentaries, but rarely wander outside. We ooh and aah over photographs of lovely gardens, whilst sitting on a concrete patio and pruning the occasional shrub. Although I describe Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs as a kind of guide book to unusual plants, it doesn’t have glossy pictures of them because the whole point is to get people going out and finding them, growing them, eating them. I want to encourage curiosity and motivate people to have new experiences, not spoon-feed them everything and sate their appetite with images. It’s not a coffee-table book. It’s not eye candy. The books I loved most when I was a kid (and I was a real bookworm) were the ones with words, not pictures. They exercise your imagination.

How did you find your contributors?

I put out a call for contributors on the blog, way back in 2010. Some of them came via that, and I asked people I had already encountered on social media. Being immersed in the unusual edibles community, I was already familiar with the main players (on and offline), although it was nice to be able to feature some new faces.

What was the best part about working on this book for you?

The best part of working on the book was reading the stories that people sent in for inclusion. I have contributors from all over the world, and it was fascinating to learn what they considered to be unusual, the plants they were growing and the ways they were learning about new ones. You don’t get that in most gardening books, and even if you know these people on social media, those stories very often don’t come out (or you learn them very slowly).

Why did you decide to go the route of self-publishing? Your last book, The Peat-Free Diet, was also self-published. What's the appeal of that process for you? 

I imagine that there’s a rather niche audience of this book, and that I would have had trouble attracting the attention of a publisher for it. Self-publishing also allows me to stay in control of the process, and to write the kind of books that I want to write. I learn about the process every time I do it (and hopefully get better at it!), and it’s a far more personal journey.

That’s important for this book in particular, because it’s a very personal project. It didn’t start out that way, but because of the way my life went over the last few years, I had to shelve it more than once. At the beginning of this year I felt, very strongly, that I was in a position to finish it and to get it out to the people who might want to read it. I didn’t want it to be languishing on my hard drive for ever more.

And, in a very real sense, self-publishing is what I do. I produce a blog, and a podcast, and all of that I do by myself. Self-publishing a book just feels like an extension of that – a new journey.

Where can people find your book?

For the time being, the easiest place to find it is at Smashwords where you can read a preview of the book. From 1st May you’ll be able to buy a copy there, in whatever ebook format you like, as well. But the book will also be available from various ebook stores, including iTunes and it’s already available to pre-order in the Nook store.

What's your next project? 

There’s actually another complete book on my hard drive that nobody has seen, and I’d like to publish that in due course. And I’d like to do an ebook version of The Peat-Free Diet, which is currently only available as an audio book. But for the immediate future my next project is going to be getting back into gardening, which has been another thing that has been on hold through changing circumstances. I have seeds germinating on the windowsills, and an allotment to cultivate this year, so that’s definitely the next thing on the agenda.


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