Spoonfuls of Germany

The grain of truth in German heirloom seeds

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Leaving your home country to settle elsewhere brings along a loss of your cultural references, no matter whether the move to a new country was voluntary or involuntary. There are two cultural references that will always stick with you, and you don’t want to let them go because they are part of who you are: language and food. That’s why I don’t find it surprising when immigrants who otherwise happily adapt to life in the new country, maintain their culinary traditions, and continue to speak their native language. I do.

As an immigrant to America, and as a gardener who grows red currants so I can make the classic German summer dessert Rote Grütze (red fruit pudding) every summer, I have always been charmed by the idea that it was immigrants who brought seeds of their favorite edibles to the New World in their pockets, or had them sown into the hem of their clothing, to have something that connects them to their past.

Schifferstadt Black Radish. Photo courtesy of William Woys Weaver.

However, I’ve recently learned that this is not how seeds moved across the Atlantic. There was a lively transatlantic seed trade between German and American seed companies in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is how most European seeds reached America.

The person who shattered that myth for me was William Woys Weaver, acclaimed food historian and author whose sixteen books on food and gardening have received many awards, the most recent being the 2019 Award of Excellence from the Council on Botanical & Horticultural Libraries for his book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

William spent part of his childhood in Chester County, Pennsylvania, under the cultural influence of his grandparents. His grandfather, who was born in Lancaster, spoke to him in Pennsylvania Dutch and told him folk tales in that language. His grandmother cooked Pennsylvania Dutch classics such as shoofly pie. By William’s own account, this made him an insider and at the same time gave him the distance of an outsider to write about Pennsylvania Dutch topics in a “balanced and unbiased way”.

The Weaver family – originally spelled Wäber – came to America from Switzerland in 1680, which makes William a 13th-generation American. German-speaking Swiss immigrants, together with Germans from the south of Germany (Palatinate, Bavaria and Swabia) and eastern France (Alsace) are the three groups that formed the Pennsylvania Dutch speaking communities. Much to William’s chagrin, the terms „Pennsylvania Dutch“ and „Amish“ are often used interchangeably while in fact the Amish are only 5 to 10 percent of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the majority are Lutherans.

Swabian Lazy Wife (Faule Frau) Pole Bean. Photo courtesy of William Woys Weaver.

Historically, agriculture was the main economy in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and to cater to that market, the D. Landreth Seed Company, founded in Philadelphia in 1784 and one of the oldest companies in America, published its seed catalogs not only in English but also in a German and Spanish edition – a remarkable example of early ethnic marketing. The German catalogs, often combined with an almanac, listed seeds tailored to the Pennsylvania climate, which, William says, also made them suitable for the upper Midwest and New England.

At the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, which was also the first World’s Fair on American soil, German seed companies sold their seeds – another interesting fact I learned from William.

Landreth Co. 1871 and 1879 German-language seed almanachs and catalogs. Photos courtesy of Nursery Catalogs Collection. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society McLean Library.

William truly has seeds in his genetic code. His grandfather H. Ralph Weaver, the same grandfather who had given him immersion into Pennsylvania Dutch, had started collecting seeds in 1932. While the main motive was to grow food for his family during the Great Depression, his work on the family genealogy had also triggered his interest in heirloom seeds that had been grown in Pennsylvania Dutch Country for generations. His garden included so many rare varieties that visitors flocked to it in the 1940s.

After his grandfather’s death in 1956, the seed collection was literally deep-frozen for about a decade until William, while in college, discovered it the bottom of his grandmother’s freezer. Many of the seeds were still viable and by the mid-1970s William was growing many of his grandfather’s heirloom varieties again in his own garden. He subsequently named the collection Roughwood Seed Collection after the Victorian house in which he lives.

Pinecone Potato (Rosa Tannenzapfen) Potato. Photo courtesy of William Woys Weaver.

Today the Roughwood Seed Collection contains more than 7,000 varieties of heritage seeds, including German specialties like Palatine June Bush Bean, which was a popular bush bean in the 1880s and 1890s, Schifferstadt Black Radish, Berliner Gelbe Lettuce, Früher Heinrich Peas and Swabian Lazy Wife (Faule Frau), as well as 40 different types of heirloom potatoes, including the famous fingerling potatoes Bamberger Hörnle.

The Roughwood Seed Collection is part of the Roughwood Table, a non-profit educational foundation devoted to heritage foods prepared from heirloom seeds. William’s newest cookbook The Roughwood Book of Pickling will be published in September.

Towards the end of our talk, William shattered another myth about the red lima beans I grew in my garden last summer. I had bought the seeds last May at the gift store of the Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum, which is an excellent exhibit of Pennsylvania German heritage. The label on the seed package identified them as Pennsylvania Dutch red lima beans, an heirloom variety.

Pennsylvania Dutch Red Lima Beans aka Jackson Wonder Lima Beans growing in my garden.

William, whom our leading local newspaper, The Morning Call, befittingly called the “Sherlock Holmes of Pennsylvania Dutch fare”, has a different take on it. In an article about the Jackson Wonder Lima Bean, he wrote, “Pennsylvania wasn’t good lima bean country (the nights are too cool). But when I saw the brilliant beans in a jar of chow-chow (pickled mixed vegetables), I couldn’t help but smile — this lima had certainly found its place in the hearts of Pennsylvania Dutch housewives.”

It does not matter whether those red lima beans are truly Pennsylvania Dutch or not. I don’t regret having grown them in my garden as are very tasty and eventually gave me the idea to write about German heirloom seeds in America as part of The Year of German American Friendship.

In his book Dutch Treats: Heirloom Recipes from Farmhouse Kitchens, William includes a recipe for Bean Day Bread which was traditionally prepared on June 4 when the Pennsylvania Dutch planted their summer bean crop.

This year I intend to do both – bake that bread and plant beans in my garden.

Palatine June Bush Bean (Pfälzer Juni). Photo courtesy of William Woys Weaver.

 

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3 thoughts on “The grain of truth in German heirloom seeds

  1. I enjoyed reading this post on so many levels: perspective on holding onto one’s first language and “home” food, heirloom seeds, Pennsylvania Dutch history, gardening.

  2. Such a delightful article. I was reminded of our WW2 backyard ”Victory Garden, and the favorite verities of vegetables whose seeds my mother sent to her family in Germany after the war. When I went to Germany as a Jr. Year exchange student and met my mother’s family for the first time, my grandmother, who was still living, said “Oh the seeds your mother sent us! Especially the Kentucky Wonder Beans!

    I’m a big city kid and do not gravitate to vegetable cultivation. My guess is that Mom sent many packets of bean seeds from the Ferry Seed Co. a local Michigan seed producer, and those seeds were shared throughout the small farming community near Tübingen. I doubt anyone farms there any more. On my last visit, about 2006, the many little plots divided and re-divided through the generations had become building plots and the village was being meticulously been restored in disneyesque fashion, as a “charming” bedroom community of Tübingen. ~Eleanor Oliver Washington, D.C.

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  3. Your article really rings bells – I always bring seeds back from Germany, even though some of the varieties I buy I can now buy in France. Others, such as the Superschmelz Kohlrabi are nowhere to be found here – people don’t know what they are missing out on!! 🙂 And Bohnenkraut is unknown here, except for the rustic variety which does not have as much flavour as the annual, which self-seeded so prolifically in my grandmother’s garden, and which always found its way in the pot every time beans were cooked!
    I’m off to my “potager” now, checking on how things are doing and opening the greenhouse!

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