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Bill Thorness, author of Edible Heirlooms, appears on the Wieden+Kennedy Stage on Saturday October 10th, at 3 P.M. with Landgon Cook. 

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Even Veggies Tell a Story

Earlier this summer I stood in the center of my main vegetable garden – a 15-by-20 foot raised bed in the front yard of my Seattle house — and I realized that, in each direction, I was growing a plant with a history.

To my right was Dwarf Grey Sugar peas – a variety with a very unappetizing name and yet one that has been a favorite since Colonists brought them from England in the 1700s. In front of me, the Jimmy Nardello’s Italian Sweet peppers were just starting to curl into their distinctive, knobby J shape. That variety was named for the Italian immigrant who brought it with him to the Boston area.

On my left was the juicy Brandywine tomato, with a skin so thin it will never be tamed by a grocer. Next to that stood the Chioggia beet with its candy-striped root flesh, and beyond that Dragon’s Tongue bean, which came to the U.S. from the Netherlands and shows off purple streaks on its long, flattened yellow pods. The uniqueness and origin of these veggies – and the fact that you rarely find them commercially – makes them even more delightful to cultivate.

Each season I grow a rainbow of interesting, hard-to-find and delicious vegetables, which grace my dinner table throughout the year. A few years ago, I realized that most of the vegetables I’ve grown for years are heirloom varieties, which led me to the idea for my new book, Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Plants for the Maritime Garden (Skipstone Press, Seattle, October 2009).

Now, I could haunt the grocery stores and farmers markets and come up with great produce that would be enjoyable to cook, tasty to eat and healthy for my family. In fact, I think it’s important to support the professional, local farmers selling direct at the farmers markets.

But how delightful to know a plant’s provenance! That’s what makes an antique so special, and heirloom vegetables are really like living antiques. Because Thomas Jefferson was so great at keeping journals, we know what his garden contained, and I can grow plants with the same DNA as his. That’s pretty amazing.

As a writer, I like to look around me and see the story in everything. One good friend regularly ribs me about musing on the motivation of someone who did a particular thing. Every person surely has a unique tale to tell, but how about the unusual dent in a car’s fender, the way a bird clings upside down on the tree trunk, or the reason that peas with wrinkled seeds are often sweeter? To me, a former farm boy and longtime gardener, the earth and what it sprouts contains some of the best stories. The food we grow is, pardon the pun, at the root of our existence and, in the case of heirlooms, can be as old as the hills.


  • What are you reading now? Who is your favorite new author? What is your favorite book of the year? Favorite book of all time? Right now I’m reading “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi” by that droll Englishman Geoff Dyer. Funny, insightful man. Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain” was a great find for me last year, and I’m anxiously awaiting the new book by my friend Jennie Shortridge, “When She Flew.” My all-time-favorite author is Italo Calvino, and his best for me was probably “If on a winter’s night a traveler.”
  • What is your favorite food? Towards the top of the list is garlic mashed potatoes – more specifically: Spanish Roja garlic with mashed Ozette fingerling potatoes. Or a saute of Rainbow chard with chopped Danvers Yellow Globe onions and spicy Georgian Fire garlic, finished with a bit of balsamic vinegar and slivered almonds.
  • Which writers have most influenced you? I admire essayists like Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan and Nicholson Baker for their relaxed, conversational and yet revealing tones.
  • What are you working on now? I’m considering a family-focused history book related to my father and his service in World War II. And a book on Northwest-grown food, from both the farm and garden perspectives.
  • What is your favorite website for writing/literature/etc.? Bartleby.com is a great source for references and quotes, or just browsing through deep thoughts and epigrams.
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