Penguin Q & A with Simon Rickard, author of Heirloom Vegetables: A Guide to their History and Varieties
What is your new book about?
My book is a celebration of heirloom vegetables – their beauty, history and utility.
In the first part of the book, I explain what makes a vegetable an ‘heirloom’, and why that makes it special. In the second part, I paint a portrait of each vegetable family to show how vegetables are related to one another, as well as to other plants. Within each family portrait, I describe several hundred of heirloom varieties and tell their special stories. In the third part I give readers some advice on how to grow heirloom vegetables at home, based on my own experience as a professional gardener.
My book could not be described as a ‘how-to-grow’ guide, however. It is in large part a social history of heirloom vegetables.
What or who inspired it?
The vegetables themselves inspired my book. They have such interesting stories and they tell us a lot about ourselves. As a society we take vegetables completely for granted, and I wanted to redress that in some way.
What was the biggest challenge, writing it?
The biggest challenge in writing my book was navigating the piles of open books littering every surface of my house while I was researching it. I also found it quite a challenge not to let my book degenerate into a polemic on the politics of food. However, this issue has come to be tightly bound up with the heirloom vegetable movement, so a little pontificating was unavoidable.
What did you want to achieve with your book?
I wanted to relate some of the stories about where people and vegetables have been together over the last 10 000 years, how domestication has rendered vegetables unrecognisable from their wild ancestors, and how they have made us more dependent on them than we realise.
For example, the humble potato, native to the land around Lake Titicaca, has changed the course of human history several times. It was domesticated in South America by 7 000 years ago. It fuelled the vast Inca Empire, before travelling to Europe on Spanish galleons in the sixteenth century. It took another 200 years to be accepted as edible by Europeans, but eventually the poor came to depend on it. In the 1840s a potato crop failure in Ireland led to the great famine, which resulted in the deaths of a million people, and the migration of a million more Irish refugees. This huge migration changed the demographic makeup of the fledgling USA, and its repercussions are still felt there today. It’s quite a big CV for a vegetable.
Apart from their fascinating stories, heirloom vegetables make fabulous eye candy. They have beautiful and surprising colours, shapes and textures. They beg to be picked up and stroked or, better still, eaten. I wanted to give readers a taste of their beauty and romance through my photographs.
What do you hope for your book?
I hope that readers find my book entertaining and informative. I hope it inspires readers to grow, cook and eat their own heirloom vegetables in a spirit of love and joy.
On a more serious note, I hope that my book engenders a new level of respect for vegetables, and a better understanding of plant breeding. I hope it dispels some of the myths that have attached themselves to the heirloom vegetable story like limpets.
I hope my book gets people thinking and talking about issues surrounding food – where it has come from, where it’s going, and how precious it is, and who should or should not own it.
What do you see as the major themes in your book?
The history of vegetables, including their family affiliations, domestication, cultural ties and future development.
To whom have you dedicated the book and why?
I have dedicated my book to my two grandmothers.
My paternal grandmother, Marj, came of age in wartime London during the Dig For Victory campaign. When she migrated to Australia in the 1950s, she brought her Englishwoman’s love of gardening with her. She had a beautiful garden in Canberra, where I grew up, with flower borders, fruits and vegetables. Whenever I went to visit her as a boy, I would be handed a pair of secateurs and told to pick a bunch of flowers for my mother. I used to love being given free reign in her garden.
My late maternal grandmother, Win, taught me how little you need to be happy, and how to be content with what you have got. She lived her whole life as poor as a church mouse, but she maintained an amazing sense of dignity and generosity of spirit towards others. She positively radiated love and contentment. This is how I try to live my life.
Do you have a special ‘spot’ for writing at home? (If so, describe it)
I bought a beautiful 1920s oak desk in a vain attempt to encourage me to write at it. It quickly became engulfed in paperwork and stacks of books, so I do most of my writing semi-supine on an old Arts and Crafts daybed in the living room. I concede it’s an ergonomic nightmare, but I can look out the window at my garden shimmering in the afternoon sun, nice and snug next to the fireplace. Just don’t tell my osteopath, OK?
When did you start writing?
When I was 14, I wrote an article on my experience growing an orchid called Vanda rothschildiana for the newsletter of the Orchid Society of Canberra, which, to my embarrassment, later found its way into a book the society compiled on growing orchids in cool climates. Looking back, I suppose I have been writing occasionally ever since.
Tell us a bit about your childhood?
I was born in Port Macquarie, NSW, but my family moved to Canberra when I was four, so I consider myself a Canberran. Growing up in Canberra it was utopian. In the afterglow of the Whitlam era and the Fraser years, I remember a feeling of great optimism in the future.
There was palpable enthusiasm for the arts and sciences in Canberra. We had the top public institutions in the country in the CSIRO, ANBG, School of Art, School of Music, NGA and the ANU, to say nothing of all the interesting people those institutions attracted. Most importantly, we had a public education system second to none in the world. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I was so lucky to have the education I had. My parents always encouraged my brother and I to do what we loved. They made sacrifices to give us opportunities that they never had. All in all, it was a fantastic childhood and I feel very lucky.
If you’ve had other jobs outside of writing, what were they?
I have two parallel careers. I am both a gardener and a musician.
I have worked as a musician for 20 years, specialising in playing renaissance, baroque and classical music on historical bassoons. I have worked with some of the finest period instrument ensembles in Australia and Europe, but my instrument is fairly obscure, so like all baroque musicians living in Australia, I have a day job. Luckily, my day job is being a gardener.
I worked as a hands-on gardener for thirteen years, but my back started to complain, so these days I do more brain work than back work. Garden design, consultancy, coaching and communication are my bread and butter. Freelancing makes for an unpredictable existence, but I have a great life and I wouldn’t change it for quids.
What three things do you dislike?
Greed, lust for power, dogma.
What three things do you like?
Generosity of spirit, humility, rational scepticism.
What made you want to write Heirloom Vegetables?
I wanted to share the beauty and romance of this group of plants, which are masterpieces of human ingenuity. I wanted to bring vegetables’ histories to light, because their stories tell us something about ourselves, too.
In part, I wanted to write Heirloom Vegetables to counter some of the specious misinformation getting around on the internet. It’s amazing how quickly errors propagate in that medium, and how quickly they come to be accepted as fact. I could have started my own blog, but one of the things I particularly like about good old-fashioned books is that their content is reviewed by many sets of eyes before getting into print. On the internet, anyone with a computer can publish any half-baked ideas and half-truths they so choose without a skerrick of scrutiny.
Do you feel more of a sense of “community” amongst like-minded people as yourself since the advent of blogging?
Yes and no. It is truly wonderful that the internet has the ability to bring together people with shared passions, and provides a democratic forum for the exchange of ideas. There is a whole universe of wonderful information on the internet which just wasn’t available when I was growing up.
Democracy is all well and good, but, more often than not, food gardening blogs and fora are a case of the blind leading the blind. Certain figures come to be seen as ‘experts’ by sheer force of their personalities, or because their blog has appealing graphic design, in spite of any sustained experience in their subject matter, or anything useful to say.
I would dearly love garden bloggers to become more circumspect about what they write, and readers to become more critical of what they read.
What would you like to think people can get from reading your book?
I hope that it encourages people to grow and eat their own heirloom vegetables. I also hope that readers come away with a sense of how precious and wonderful food is, and perhaps gain some insight into the importance of genetic diversity in food security.
What do you like to read? And what are you currently reading?
I am ashamed to admit that I am hopeless at reading fiction. A dear friend of mine, who is spectacularly well-read, has attempted to educate me by giving me fiction for my birthday and Christmas for over two decades, which I have stockpiled for my retirement reading. I joke with her that I can only read books with a certain picture-to-word ratio. Only it’s not a joke.
What I do read is gardening books. Oodles of them. So many that my bookshelf recently collapsed under the weight of them. I love books on garden history and design, practical plant husbandry, monographs on individual plant genera, technical books on pruning, soil science and books on specialist pursuits such as bonsai. I love old gardening books which show how fashions change, and lend interesting insights into the motivation and practice of gardening in the past.
What do you think your life will be like 20 years from now?
I hope that it will be just like it is now - gardening, playing baroque music at the highest level, eating and laughing together with friends and loved ones. I hope that it will still be possible to live a simple but fulfilling life, as it is now.
Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
I get information from old books and new books. Hundreds of them.
There is a lot of wonderful information on the internet, but you have to really know how to sort the wheat from the considerable amount of chaff. One great thing about the internet is that it is easy to compare a lot of different sources quickly. This speeds up the critical process.
I get a great deal of ideas and information from visiting gardens, talking to other gardeners, and most importantly from actually gardening myself.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
I was surprised just how long humans have been domesticating vegetables, and how extensively we have manipulated their genes over the intervening millennia. Genetic technologies are nothing new at all.
I was also surprised by how important South America was as a centre of domestication. We tend to think of the fertile crescent as the epicentre of domestication, but South (and Central) America was also invented domestication, completely separately from the Old World.
If I were for sale the ad would say…
Loveable curmudgeon seeks loving home. Slightly worn exterior, mint condition under the bonnet. Comes with novelty moustache.
What is your life motto?
It’s an oldie, but a goody: live every day like it’s your last.
What is your most memorable moment?
My most memorable moment was the first time I worked with William Christie, the conductor of the French baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants. I had been passionate about French baroque music for years, but at the time no one played this obscure repertoire on period instruments in Australia, which was very frustrating. Being able to work with Christie in Europe was a dream come true for me. It was the most exciting thing I had ever done. When he gave the downbeat for the first note of Charpentier’s opera David et Jonathas, the sound of the orchestra all around me was so magnificent that instead of playing a beefy low g on my bassoon, I started blubbering instead! I was so choked up with emotion that I couldn’t play for the first eight bars, and just sat in the middle of the orchestra and sobbed. In that moment, it felt like all the years of hard work that my parents and I had put in had finally paid off.
How did you feel when you finished writing Heirloom Vegetables?
I felt relieved. It’s the hardest thing to letting go of a manuscript. The temptation is to keep endlessly refining with it and rejigging it in a vain attempt to make it perfect, which is, of course a mythical state that doesn’t exist in the real world. At some point you need to stop fiddling with your manuscript and just let it go. When you do, it’s tremendously liberating.
Describe a day in your life when you are writing.
Wake up at 4am with a great idea. Try to convince myself that I will remember said idea at 7am. I know I won’t, so get up at 4.15 and begin writing. The early morning is when I do my best ‘quality’ writing. Write until hungry. Maybe go for a run, maybe not. Have breakfast. Procrastinate. Force myself to write some more before I run out of steam by lunch time. Have lunch. Go and do something I enjoy – gardening and/or bassoon practice. Cook dinner. Do some research (or am I procrastinating? It’s hard to tell sometimes...) Perhaps sit down to do some ‘quantity’ writing for an hour or two before bed. That is, bang out a volume of material, which can be reworked at a later date, but which it’s important to commit it to paper in the first place. Have a flood of ideas just before bed, feel guilty for not getting enough writing done today, even though I probably actually did. Go to bed, keen to get up and do it all again tomorrow.
All images are extracts from the book Heirloom Vegetables by Simon Rickard, published by Lantern, RRP $49.95.
I was sent a review copy by Lantern, however my decision to feature this book is my own.