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Book Review: "Taste, Memory" by David Buchanan

Many of us in the North Country are learning to eat closer to home. We buy fruits, vegetables and meats from local farmers as a way to help our economy and get good, fresh food. But author and farmer David Buchanan believes truly local food must pass the test of time. Betsy Kepes reviews his book Taste, Memory--Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

David Buchanan is a peripatetic farmer in Portand, Maine, a man without his own land. He rents and barters for small plots to grow his veggies, fruits and nursery stock and sells his products in the Portland farmers’ market. What is unusual about Buchanan is his passion to grow and sell only varieties of plants that have historically been grown in the Northeast, and many varieties that originated in Maine. He writes, “In my mind every peach tree, grapevine or strawberry plant sold this year has become part of a network, a link that extends my own trials and experimentation.”

Buchanan writes luscious prose about the taste of an heirloom strawberry or an apple with tender skin that is “ a perfect balance of sweet and acid flavors” and he’s often running off with friends to do some “fruit exploring”. They search out old trees, looking for centurion survivors of almost extinct varieties of apples or rare patches of heirloom raspberries. He tells of a time when diversity was the norm in the agricultural Northeast, when each small farm grew a variety of trees and crops.

I enjoyed Buchanan’s well-written stories and his missionary zeal in preserving heirloom strains of plants. He makes his story bigger by visiting other seed saver farms. One farmer grows rare varieties of root crops and beans. His potato plot includes a variety called “the Lumper”, a plant that has huge yields of not-very-tasty potatoes. The Lumper was one of the only potato varieties that the Irish grew in the years before the Potato Famine and I was glad to know that bit of botanical history is still alive. Old varieties of potato could become extinct in a year if no one bothered to plant them as the seeds are not an exact genetic copy of the parent plant.

Buchanan describes himself as a kid in a candy store when he visits the NYS Experimental Agricultural station in Geneva, a repository for thousands of kinds of plants. After walking through the acres of apples trees, hundreds of varieties, he writes: “So much history and information lies dormant in this orchard, either forgotten or neglected.” 

But still, the skeptic in me wondered how Buchanan thinks the world will be fed. Mass production of food needs high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties and that can mean plants “created” in a laboratory. Buchanan has an answer for that. The world has discovered, he says, that mono cropping is a dangerous way to farm as plant diseases and pests can spread quickly. He writes, “The time has passed for thinking any one variety can supplant all others. We need the old, the new and the ever-changing to maintain a healthy agricultural system.”

In Taste, Memory Buchanan believes it is in the backyard garden that many heirloom plants have a chance to survive. He writes, “even the smallest garden can express something nearly forgotten, become a pocket of diversity in a world that looks and tastes increasingly the same.” North Country gardeners have a long history of sharing berry plants, garlic bulbs and lilac roots. It’s good to be reminded of the importance of keeping that tradition alive.

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