We created this handy reference guide for you to turn to for inspiration on how to utilize some of the produce that may find its way into your homes throughout a season as a CSA member with Wild Roots Farm. Bookmark this reference to return to as the harvest season evolves. What are your favorite recipes to make with your CSA share? We would love to hear from you! (click "read more" to view the full guide!)
The first few weeks of a farm back in full-swing involve a lot of the important- sometimes less glamorous - tasks of maintenance and prep: a lot of what Jami brilliantly refers to as “picking stuff up and setting it down somewhere else.” But, more than anything else, this time of year is for seeds. As someone who arrived at farming via a fast-and-furious love affair with seeds and seed saving (so much so that my now-partner called me “seed girl” behind my back for months before we ever hung out), this part of the farming calendar reminds me of the visceral, intangible reasons I turned towards agriculture. Seeding, for me, feels like the time where you get to be most intimately involved stewarding and closely observing the entire life cycle of a plant. Don’t get me wrong; weeding, fertilizing, harvesting, washing and packing are all intimate human-plant relations we tend to on the farm, but there is something about engaging with a seed that I imagine must be akin to what being a midwife or doula feels like. At Wildroots, we’ve been hard at work in the propagation house seeding rounds of many diverse cultivars of brassicas, tomatoes, peppers, beets, fennel, celeriac, the first summer squash, herbs, dye flowers, and more! We’ve been holding in our hands the little wise, mesmerizing, and humbling seeds which contain the genetic instruction manual of the food that will fill your CSA boxes soon.
Why should we care about seeds in the first place? Well, I definitely don’t have room in this blog to cover all that. I wrote like a hundred pages about that once and still didn’t have room… So, I will just draw from the words of seed keeper (among many other things) Rowen White from her seed mentorship program I am participating in: “Let us remember and rejoice that nearly every bite that passes our lips connects back to the generosity of a seed.”
Despite the fact that agriculture - or any part of the human experience for that matter- would not exist without seeds, they are not as talked about in conversations about food culture often (although there are so many rad humxns working to change that). Humans have sowed, saved, and shared seeds for millennia. Maintaining relationships with seeds allows food growers to influence yield, taste, nutrition, as well as adapt to uncertain and changing climatic conditions. Yet, in the last half century, legal and policy regimes of biotechnology, intellectual property rights, and corporate consolidation have threatened rights and freedoms to save seeds, and the knowledge of how to do so and have disrupted intimate relationships between seed and growing. Traditional crops are being lost to climatic change, political upheavals, and developments in the biotechnology industry and in plant genetic patenting laws as the seed industry becomes increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few powerful multinational corporations.
One of the main reasons we as farmers need to pay attention to these seed trends is biodiversity. We live in a time of pretty unsettling threats to our global agro-biodiversity (aka the number of varieties of food crops in our soils and on our plates). While there are over 30,000 known edible plant species, only 30 of those plants feed the world, and about 75% of our calories comes from just 12 plants (and 5 animals). Just 5 cereal plants alone provide 60% of the world’s energy intake. This loss is a threat to our ability to withstand climate change, leaving our food systems vulnerable to unpredictable weather conditions and disease outbreaks (think Irish potato famine), and is a threat to the survival of the traditional dishes, customs, and recipes that form the beautiful foundation of our diverse personal identities, cultures, and communities. That is why we aren’t just seeding ‘cabbage’ on the farm we are seeding cabbages with stories, with cultures, with identities of their own. That is why we have to keep spreadsheets just to keep track of the varieties we sow. Many farms today don’t have the capacity to save all their own seeds because of the ways the food system has evolved, I am hell-bent on changing that, but in the meantime farms can participate in relational seed procurement by trading, saving some seed, and supporting small scale regional seed companies committed to biodiversity conservation, climate adaptation, and liberatory seed politics.
As is often the case, a thing that holds the most potential for harm can also be the site of hope and transformation we need. In a time where grief, rage, fatigue, and languish, keep crashing like waves over us collectively (over state-sanctioned police brutality, inequities in access to basic humxn rights, waning care for a truly ongoing global pandemic that continues to harm community unevenly), seeding reminds me to focus on where we cultivate hope (vaccinations, hugging a loved one, a very cool colored iris blooming). Seeding reminds me to pay attention to the inherent cycles of growth, generosity, and abundance. Seeding reminds me of the kind of resistance and radicalism from the margins I want to embody. Seeding allows me to ask exactly what our capacity is to do anything which will make the world closer to the world we want to live in. Seeding reminds me to stand in solidarity and action with those whose struggles are not our own because these seed-based practices deepen an understanding that the liberation of all humans (and all nature!) are intricately bound. Seeding reminds me of what an alternative to capitalism can look like.
I want to emphasize that my interest in seed-based resistance is nothing new, but rather learns from generations of knowledge and wisdom involving a powerful legacy of seeds linked to survival in the face of struggle, oppression, and violence. In her book Farming While Black, Leah Penniman describes oral histories of women who braided rice, okra, and millet seeds into their hair before being forced to board the ships of the transatlantic slave trade “as insurance for an uncertain future” (Penniman 2018, 149) These are the powerful stories to which we can turn which demonstrate how seed work can contain stories of hope, resilience, adaptation, tradition, and new life.
You do not need to have a farm to have a restored relationship to seeds! In fact there is a lot to be said about the ways grassroots efforts from home growers may hold the most potential to safeguard our collective bio-cultural diversity! I once interviewed a seed saver who told me this: “Gardeners are going to be the caretakers of diversity. Farmers have to think about yields and that has to make sense in the complicated economy of food. Gardeners don’t have to be that practical. I see how valuable our role is as gardeners around caring for diversity.” That is my plug to encourage you to learn more about planting and saving seeds in your own ways (this zine is a good start!).
Okay, that is all I will ramble on about seeds for now. April is such a fertile and luscious time of year in the Pacific Northwest and I hope you are drinking it up in gulps. I keep describing the plants around town as flirty and juicy, and they are therefore making me feel flirty and juicy. I hope you can take a walk around today and start to notice yourself feeling flirty with the plants of your neighborhood.
In gratitude for seeds,
My grandpa came to America from Teggiano, a small town just South of Naples in Italy when he was just a boy, around 12 years old. He eventually married my grandma who was a Polish immigrant. They lived in the Canarsie borough of Brooklyn, alongside other Italian and Jewish immigrants. They were fortunate enough to have a house with a nice size backyard where they kept chickens, a huge fig tree (possibly one brought from Italy), grapes and of course vegetables. My grandma instilled a strong love of gardening in most of her seven children. My dad and all his sisters still keep vegetable gardens at home where they always grow what I consider the Italian must haves – basil, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. Part of my love of gardening came from my grandma Mary, whom I was named after. She passed on shortly before I was born and my parents adopted me.
My actual biological DNA is mostly French/German and tiny bit British and Dutch. Even though my parents tried to bring some of that culture into my life, I feel little connection to any of those places. As an adoptee, finding a connection to your roots can be a struggle. My mom is Puerto Rican and Mexican/Indigenous while my dad is Polish/Italian – both are first generation Americans but I was brought up as pretty traditional American. As my mom always told me though, I’m all of the things jumbled together. Claiming my parents’ cultural heritage as my shared experience, I at times feel like an impostor – that I HAVE to state that I was adopted. Statements like “My mom is Mexican, but I’m white because I was adopted.” and “My dad is Italian, but I’m not because I was adopted.” Honestly, sometimes it’s exhausting and I’m left feeling lonely and so disconnected from everyone. I feel my deepest connections though to the Mexican and Italian culture. Although I didn’t grow up particularly immersed in either of these cultures like my parents, they were always there in the background. Homemade chorizo, capirotada, a love of dancing, and all things corn from my mom’s side. A deep love of garlic, spaghetti, feasting, and hand gestures from my dad’s side. Both sides come with a lot of passion, deep traditions, and a love of life.
One vegetable that that is part of the cultural heritage is the cucuzza. My grandma used to grow it in her backyard when my dad was a kid. I will never know for sure why my grandma grew cucuzza, but I guess that it was for my grandfather to make him feel at home in a new country. Maybe one of her Italian neighbors gave her some seed. It doesn’t really matter though so much now. That information has been lost in our family along with the culinary tradition of how to prepare the cucuzza. This charming squash is still in the hearts of my dad and his sister. My Aunt Jo loves to grow beautiful vegetables and enter them into the local and state fairs. She always saves seed and passes them along to my dad and her other friends. A few years ago, she handed my dad an envelope of cucuzza seed she’d saved and convinced my dad to try growing some. It was more seed than he needed, so he gave me some and told me that my grandma used to grow it. Well how could I not try it then?
Cucuzza, or snake gourd, has been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region and has a long culinary history in southern Italy and Sicily. The cucuzza (Lagernaria siceraria) is an Italian calabash type squash and a member of the Cucurbit family. Botanically, it’s a type of gourd, though it’s most commonly used similar to summer squash. In Italy, it also goes by Zucca, suzza melon, cucuzzi, and Googootz (pronounced goo-GOOTZ) in slang. There is a well-known Sicilian proverb – “however you cook it, it’s still just a squash”. It’s so much better than zucchini though! It has a really nice firm texture that holds up to cooking well, stores longer, and is easier to harvest. The cucuzza grows long (over 12 feet) but should be picked young when they are around 12 to 18 inches long. They have pale green skin and white flesh. As they mature, their skin hardens and they can be stored similar to a winter squash. They do need to be trellised and are avid climbers and can make a gorgeous green “fence”.
As Lane of the Culinary Breeding Network recently said, the Italian side always takes over everything. I feel that this is very true in my life – it’s the culture I feel the most connected to. After traveling in Italy twice, how could one not fall in love with it all - the food, the way of life? Everyone in the countryside there has a garden. Each dish is so regional and deeply steeped in tradition. This past year, we grew out a couple beds of cucuzza on the farm. Each time I walked by the walls of climbing tendrils, with glowing white flowers that open at night (and are pollinated by moths), I felt transported with a sense of connection to something ancient. We organized a Zoom cooking class for our CSA members with Zisolhouse, a small farm in Sicily that Brian and I actually visited in 2019 thanks to a recommendation from Lane. It’s in the Southeast corner of Sicily just a little south of Noto. The little organic family farm was created in the 70’s and planted out in citrus and olives. It was abandoned for a generation, but Fabio and his partner Annarelle have brought it back from the grips of wild blackberries. It’s now a REAL agriturismo where one can stay, learn about citrus and wild oranges, olive oil, and enjoy a real Sicilian meal. Each member who paid for the class received all the ingredients for the recipe from our farm, which was for a very traditional stew that included some of the smaller, younger tendrils of the plants called “tenerumi” in Italian. I bought the class for my dad for his birthday and he loved it! He loved it so much that he made the dish like 4 times in a row. It was a great way for us to connect as a family to his mother, who I never had the chance to meet, around food. He also talked with his Vietnamese neighbor about the cucuzza and he learned how they grow a similar squash they call bầu rắn. They shared their recipes for this squash.
Food is the one things we all need. I truly believe that as Anim Steel says “Food can be a vehicle for social change. It brings people together in a way that very few other activities can." As I connect to my community through farming, growing some of the crops that my grandparents grew in their homeland can make that connection more deeply rooted and authentic. My generation seems to be searching deeply for those forgotten traditions that our ancestors left behind to “fit in” to Western culture. Even though at times I can feel like an impostor claiming any ties to Italian culture, it is how I want to relate to the world and my community. I want to slow down, enjoy what grows regionally, cook seasonal meals, and embrace the vegetables that were passed up for convenience of transport. The cucuzza will now be a part of our farm’s story and a link to our families roots.
Intrigued? Want to grow some yourself? Adaptive seeds based in Oregon has them cause they are such a cool plant!
Thanks for reading - Farmer Mary