WILLIAM WOYS WEAVER: FROM SEEDSMAN TO MASTER GARDENER TO FOOD HISTORIAN

“Of all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe of God, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and the result thereof”-Julie Moir Messervy

Foreword:
Before I begin to share with you this story of a contemporary cookbook author, master gardener and food historian, I want to share with you briefly, the story of my sister, Barbara, who collected seeds from favorite fruits and vegetables, and shared them with like-minded penpals throughout the 1990s. My sister had inherited our paternal grandmother’s ability to make anything grow (flowers, plants, vegetables, children). When I’d visit my sister in Tennessee, there would be dozens of small plastic medicine bottles piled up on top of the clothes’ dryer, in which to store her seeds. There were over a dozen women throughout the USA with whom Barbara corresponded and mailed seeds from her garden–in empty pill bottles! Some seed pals lived in Montana, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, California, and Ohio. She also sent seeds to various family members, including myself. Seeds from her hollyhocks are growing in our younger sister’s back yard in California.

A few years ago, I wrote a story about this for Inky Trail News, a magazine for seniors and penpals. It was called “Barbara’s Seed Pals”. (It was also posted on my blog in January, 2010) My sister died, in 2004, from breast cancer. But hers was the first experience I had with saving seeds. Now, I understand, this harvesting of seeds has become quite a big business. But for William Woys Weaver, the seeds he harvests are called Heirlooms. ***
WILLIAM WOYS WEAVER is a well known food historian, author of a respectable collection of cookbooks and American food history books and one garden book. He has spent over 30 years tracing the origins of, and writing about, the history of American food.

In addition, Weaver is an expert on growing and cooking with heirloom varieties of vegetables. He is also a contributing editor to Mother Earth News. Weaver explained the history of outstanding heirlooms, along with growing advice and recipes, for Mother Earth News magazine. Photographs for Mother Earth magazine issues were taken by garden photographer ROB CARDILLO and shot in Weaver’s own garden and kitchen. (Any one of those photographs would be great framed and displayed on a dining room wall).

In the article for Mother Earth News published in 2008, Weaver writes, “It was never my intention to become a seedsman, gardener, or food historian, but it happened as one of those turns in life that leads us down an unexpected path into a world of ongoing surprise and pleasure. Closeness to the earth is part of my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, and the knack for botany came from the Quaker side of my clan. But it was my grandfather who brought those threads together. He was born in Lancaster County, married to a Quaker farm girl and was deeply devoted to plants….”

Weaver writes that his grandparents were his early mentors; he remembers working beside his grandfather in his large kitchen garden and having his own miniature wheelbarrow and tools—and absorbing everything his grandfather told him. I have the most vivid picture of this in my mind and was reminded of my following on MY grandfather’s heels as he tended his grape vines, when I was a very small child.

Weaver’s grandfather had begun collecting seeds in the late 1920s — mostly from relatives, during his extensive genealogical work. The ancient tradition of seed saving sprouted in Chester County centuries ago when Native Americans discovered a rich mix of fertile soil, yielding topography and plenty of rainfall. In fact, southeastern Pennsylvania is a Mecca for farmers and botanists, as just about any seed you sow here—planted in the right conditions–will thrive.
Weaver explains that his grandfather’s collection of seeds was the founding framework from which the Roughwood Seed Collection, his collection that now contains more than 4,000 varieties, evolved…”
Even before then, his grandfather’s penchant for collecting flowers of intense blue colors was well-established. Weaver still has one of his specially bred tall-stemmed blue columbines, and not long ago realized that the big blue dahlia that used to tower over him as a child was none other than ‘Thomas Edison,’ a showy variety introduced in 1929.

However, Weaver’s grandfather died unexpectedly in 1956, when the author was only 9 years old. Manicured flower beds gradually returned to weeds, and the half-acre kitchen garden went back to lawn.

As a teenager, Weaver recalls, he worked summers in West Chester, Pa., and stayed with his grandmother. “During one of her high-energy housecleaning forays” he recalled, “We discovered — at the bottom of the big deep freezer in the cellar — hundreds of baby food jars meticulously labeled and filled with seeds. Those jars contained the core of my grandfather’s seed collection. Each jar had a story, and my grandmother was quite amused by my persistence in writing down everything she could remember about each one…”

At the time, Weaver assumed everyone had grandparents who hoarded rare seeds, enjoyed food they grew themselves and dabbled in the kind of connoisseurship that comes from eating only what is fresh and local (especially your own). He was soon to learn that this was not the case and that what they had found in the freezer was a major collection of very rare seeds. (Please go to http://www.motherearthnews.com/heirloom-plants.aspx for the entire article by Weaver about heirloom plants. The photographs are breathtaking).

After Weaver’s graduation from the University of Virginia, he went to work for a New York publisher. Because he had studied architecture, he planned to edit books on that topic. But he ended up editing all kinds of things and took a special interest in garden books, old herbal guides, and books about flowers and ferns. He said he seemed to know more about them than anyone else in the office, owing to the basic training he’d had as a child.

Before long, Weaver decided to combine his hands-on experience with gardening with his editorial experience. He took his grandfather’s seed collection out of storage in 1968 and replanted his grandfather’s kitchen garden. He returned to Pennsylvania every weekend to plant, weed, water and harvest. Some of the seeds were already dead but the peppers came through as did some of the tomatoes (*I recall years ago reading how tomato seeds were found in caves in South America and how many of them were found to be still viable after hundreds of years). Long before Farmer’s Markets became popular in New York, Weaver was hauling his own fresh produce to Manhattan and enjoying it very much.

However, when it became obvious that working in New York was costing Weaver more than it was worth, he left his job and moved back to Pennsylvania. He offered his services as a consultant to various museums and historic sites. His architecture training gave him a good basis in historical restoration. More important, many of the vegetables in his grandfather’s collection were the kind known today as heirlooms—and this was exactly what many historic sites were looking for.
When Weaver was invited to present a research paper on historical foodways at a conference in Wales in 1977, he was forced to make a decision: should he devote himself completely to culinary history? This was an entirely new field, he wrote in “Harvesting Our Heirloom History” “One that could be invented as I went because no one knew how to define it…”

*I want to comment briefly about this statement made by Weaver; more than once, in the past few years, as I began writing more and more about food/cookbooks/authors—and especially—the history of food—I have said how much I wish this field could have been available to me when I was a young adult starting out in a career that didn’t involve anything of the sort. Generally, I worked for insurance companies except for a brief stint with an aircraft company, while raising four sons. I’ve often thought—if someone could have pointed me in this direction, I would have grabbed onto it like a brass ring. But no one did, and so I struggled on my own, through the years, free-lance writing, but gradually finding myself writing about food/recipes/cookbooks and cookbook authors. I read early on to write about what you know best and so told myself—cookbooks and recipes, this is what I know the most about. Studying the history of food simply did not exist. But back to William Woys Weaver:

He notes that he had the heirloom vegetables, the real stuff of culinary history—and a nice collection of old cookbooks and garden books that he had garnered at local flea markets and farm sales. “The subject of income looked bleak”, he writes, “but my grandmother always said ‘Live above money, put your heart in front of you and follow it’ echoing the Quaker saying ‘Do the duty nearest thee’…” and so Weaver followed the spirit that beckoned him.

“Thirty-one years, fourteen books later,” he reflects, “her advice has stood me well”. Weaver says he is not a rich man but when it comes to the things that matter most, he has absolutely no regrets.

I’m not sure when or how I acquired my first book written by William Woys Weaver. I think it may have been “America Eats/Forms of Edible Folk Art” published in 1989. It was one of the books I referred to when writing “The Common Thread” for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange (an article about religious groups that prospered in the 1800s and how they influenced America’s growth; I was writing in particular about the Shakers, Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and the Latter Day Saints–groups that flourished in an outbreak of religious fervor that sprang up with religious revivals in the early 1800s).

William Woys Weaver is a man I came to think of as a food historian long before “food historian” became a phrase in our culinary vocabulary.
Next, I purchased a copy of “Sauerkraut Yankees” by William Woys Weaver. In “Sauerkraut Yankees”, Weaver focuses on the period of 1830-70 when traditional Pennsylvania-German cookery began to break down under mounting pressures of assimilation, technology changes (such as the introduction of coking stoves) industrialization and the massive changes in life-style brought about by the American Civil War. In it he describes many colorful food customs and beliefs that are largely extinct in Pennsylvania, such as the Metzelsupp, a meat gift associated with fall butchering. Weaver, himself, is a tenth generation Pennsylvania German whose ancestry traces to Canton Zurich, Switzerland. And, because my own paternal grandparents were Hungarian and German (him Hungarian, her German) and because my grandmother’s recipes were never written down, “Sauerkraut Yankees” was a source of personal reference as well—from making our own sauerkraut to Grandma’s Rivel soup. (Riwwels, usually spelled Rivels by my family members, are tiny dumplings made by rubbing egg yolk and flour between the fingers and dropping it into a pot of chicken broth. In “Sauerkraut Yankees”, Weaver explains why the correct spelling is Riwwels.

I also have “A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook/the domestic cookery of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea”, published first in 1845 at her own expense, reproduced and edited with an introduction by William Woys Weaver. “Domestic Cookery” went through nineteen editions and remained in print for 25 years. What Weaver did was reproduce the fifth edition along with an introduction that places the book in a completely new and unusual context. Weaver frames the work in the Quaker world in which Lea lived, discussing ethics, attitudes towards diet and the role of Quaker women as wives, cooks, and cookbook writers. His is one of the first attempts by an American food historian to analyze the cookery of a particular social group and is the first to deal with the Quakers. Weaver demonstrates how it is possible to use early cookbooks as cultural documents and how to analyze them as historical objects. “A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook” was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1982.

I think I found the following cookbook
accidentally, on a table of discounted books. It’s the author’s name that caught my attention. “Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking” was published in 1993 by William Woys Weaver and published by Abbeville Press, Inc. The large book might be mistaken for a coffee-table cookbook, for the photographs are simply breathtaking – but don’t be misled; it’s a cookbook filled with Pennsylvania Dutch recipes and is a great companion to “America Eats”

Somewhere I found “100 Vegetables And Where They Came From” published in 2000 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and I suspect I only paid a few dollars for it and should have bought all that they had, to give as gifts because it’s a priceless little book packed with fascinating information. Weaver’s one hundred most irresistible vegetables are all he has grown and harvested in his own kitchen garden.

The Roughwood Seed Collection became Weaver’s business enterprise when he moved to Devon Pennsylvania in 1979. There, he bought an old building that had been built in 1805 and had been known as Lamb’s Tavern, after the man who owned it. Weaver’s first priority was to rebuild the Tavern’s kitchen garden, and when he did some work for the National Register he discovered outlines of old gardens from one of the aerial views. The one thing he knew about the original kitchen garden was that the original owner had planted parsnips and bunching onions and had an apple orchard. The building is now a designated historical site—and Weaver also discovered that tavern owner Lamb was a distant relative.
Weaver writes that he raised the beds where they had been and fenced them all in. He says those 21 beds on three-quarters of an acre are the core of his garden today. Each year he grows more than 300 vegetables and varieties—potatoes, tomatoes, lettuces and many others. He has more than 50 varieties of fruit—ten different kinds of apples alone

I was beginning to get a sense of how someone, such as a master chef of Louis De Gouy’s caliber could write numerous cookbooks while traveling throughout the world and working at some of the world’s most famous restaurants or someone like William Woys Weaver could establish a seed business, write articles for magazines, write a respectable number of cookbooks—and find time for other projects; it’s simple—you make time for what you love.

In 2010, for the first time, William Woys Weaver, culinary author, editor and educator began offering hands-on seasonal heirloom gardening workshops in the kitchen garden at Roughwood. He’s also partnering with Havertown’s Janet Chrzan, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, to launch the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism at Drexel University, where he’s an adjunct professor.

October, 2010, marked the debut of his 15th book, “Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History”. He also maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection of 4,000 heirloom food plants for worldwide distribution.

The following were WRITTEN (OR CO AUTHORED) BY WILLIAM WOYS WEAVER. I suspect the list is incomplete because I found references to published articles and suspect there could be many more. Also, Mother Earth News offers “Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, a Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting Seed Saving and Cultural History” on CD-ROM. The CD includes color photographs. You may find that a copy of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening is too expensive, while the CD-Rom copy is moderately priced.

• A QUAKER WOMAN’S COOKBOOK, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982

• SAUERKRAUT YANKEES, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983

• THE LARDER INVADED: Reflections on Three Centuries of Philadelphia Food and Drink – a joint exhibition held 11/17/86 to 4/25/87, book published 1987

• AMERICA EATS, Museum of American Folk Art, Harper & Row Publishers, 1989

• THE CHRISTMAS COOK/Three Centuries of American Yuletide Sweets, 1990

• PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING, Abbeville Press, 1993

• HEIRLOOM VEGETABLE GARDENING; A MASTER’S GUIDE TO PLANTING, SEED SAVING AND CULTURAL HISTORY, 1997

• FOOD AND DRINK IN MEDIEVAL POLAND (WITH MARIA DEMBINSKA), 1999

• SAUER’S HERBAL CURES, America’s First Book of Botanical Healing, 2001

• ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FOOD AND CULTURE BY Solomon H. Katz & William Woys Weaver, 2003

• COUNTRY SCRAPPLE: AN AMERICAN TRADITION, 2003

• BEANS: MORE THAN 200 DELICIOUS WHOLESOME RECIPES FROM AROUND THE WORLD BY Aliza Green, William Woys Weaver and Steve Legato (photographer) 2004

• PENNSYLVANIA TRAIL OF HISTORY COOKBOOK, by Pennsylvania-Historical and Museum Commission, foreword by William Woys Weaver, 2004

•HEIRLOOM VEGETABLE GARDENING: A MASTER’S GUIDE TO 100 VEGETABLES AND WHERE THEY CAME FROM, ALGONQUIN PRESS OF CHAPEL HILL, 2009

• CHRISTMAS IN PENNSYLVANIA: A FOLK CULTURAL STUDY (50TH ED) BY ALFRED SHOEMAKER, DON YODER AND WILLIAM WOYS WEAVER, 2009

• CULINARY EPHEMERA, AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY 2010

This quotation is from Kaya McLaren:
“For me, gardening is a form of prayer. Most people have an awareness of life and death, but few have an awareness of life, death, and life again. Gardeners do though. Bulbs come up every spring. Then in winter, it looks like there’s nothing there, no hope for life ever again. Then, Hallelujah! Next spring they’re back even fuller. Perennials – same thing.

Annuals have a slightly different lesson. Annuals really do die, but they broadcast seeds before they go. Where there was only one calendula the year before, there will be ten this year, and one day, they will fill every empty space in your garden. Annuals are a lesson in the difference one living thing, plant or person can make, and how their presence resonates long after they’re gone. There again, the effects are not immediate. There is always the winter. And when you consider the garden as a whole, well, winter is a time to reflect, a time to dream. It gives you time to ask the big questions…

Gardening is an affirmation of divine timing. Some years, in early spring, my enthusiasm takes an ugly turn, and I seemingly believe I can make spring happen earlier than it normally would, if I just work hard enough, if I till enough, compost enough, harden off seedlings earlier than I normally would. In the end, I wind up with twelve flats of dead seedlings. Then I direct seed a couple months later, and with much less effort, everything grows into the full glory it was destined to encompass. To everything there is a season. Amen.”
And, finally:
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” -Martin Luther.

To search for any of William Woys Weaver’s books, I would suggest first scanning Google. I did some of the work for you; on Amazon.com there are numerous listings of most of his books. There are 11 listings on Barnes & Noble’s website and 27 titles offered by Allbookstores.com. Jessica’s Biscuit only has 3 of his titles but one of them, Country Scrapple, is only $5.98. Once you have ONE of William Woys Weaver’s books, you will want the rest.

Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting!
–Sandra Lee Smith

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