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lost creek seeds

“We never went hungry,” Portaro says of a childhood defined by scant financial resources, hard work in the garden and plenty of delicious meals. Like many immigrants in north-central West Virginia, his father worked grueling hours in the coal mines for little pay. “We didn’t have nothing,” he says. His family might not have enjoyed monetary wealth, but thanks to a strong work ethic and a cultural memory of agricultural and culinary traditions, his family became rich in other ways.

“On our creek, everyone had a garden,” says Ann O’Dell, 83. “Used to, anyway. But now, not many of them do.” Bloody Butcher corn (top right below) and Hutchison pole beans (bottom right) are among the seeds O’Dell and her late husband, Arnold, collected from fellow gardeners in their rural community in Jackson County, W.Va. Many of those gardeners and seed savers have since passed away, and O’Dell, 83, says younger generations haven’t carried on the traditions of growing and saving food with the same avidity of their ancestors.

That simple experiment spawned a seed-saving obsession, and, eventually, the launch of Two Seeds in a Pod Heirloom Seed Company, which Öztan and Thompson have co-owned and co-operated since 2013. Two Seeds in a Pod offers dozens of mostly Turkish seed varieties, from a white bean with red markings known as Kırmızı Göbekli Bobo (top right), to Kınalı, a deep-red heirloom okra (bottom right).

The Fat Horse Bean came to him first, from Ann Hubbard, then a young waitress at Humprey’s Dairy Bar, a Kanawha County, W.Va. eatery Maiuri frequented on lunch breaks when he worked for a telephone company in the 1950s and 60s. “We got to talking garden, and I asked her what kind of beans she raised and she told me she and her family grew these heirloom Fat Horse beans, so I told her I was interested,” he said. “To start with, she gave me sixteen seeds.” Over six decades later, Maiuri and Hubbard still keep in touch. “She’s 88 now, and recently she just called me. You know what? She lost all of her Fat Horse seed, so I sent her some this year,” Maiuri said. “I thought about sending her sixteen seeds, just like she did. I thought that’d be kind of funny, but, no, I packaged up a quarter-pound of them and I sent those to her.”

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This year, Öztan and his partner, Amy Thompson, grew over 50 different crops; among those were more than 400 individual varieties, like the Çekirdeği Oyalı watermelon and Sımişka sunflower (as seen in the photo above). Originally from the Turkish capital of Ankara, Öztan’s passion for stewarding seeds from his home country later developed into a similar affinity for the seeds from his adopted home in Appalachia. “You never know what places life might take you,” Öztan says. “But the place brings a lot of character to what you do, I think. And then this place, being a very rich region in terms of culinary traditions and seed traditions, affected my practice.” Listen along now to the Pickle Shelf Radio Hour, episode 4: Obsessions, Love Affairs and Other Seedy Stories.

From their farm in Upshur County, W.Va., Ellen and her husband, Charlie, grow a variety of produce to sell at local farmers markets. In addition to the Oxheart tomatoes, Ellen’s father also handed down seeds for the Hanover Turnip, a gnarly, large root vegetable that somewhat resembles a rutabaga. “I remember, he used to put his Hanover seeds in a little medicine bottle,” Ellen says. “And he’d put it in the freezer to plant for next year. They’ve been in the family a long time.”

He grows and cans more beans than he and his wife of 70 years, Jessie, can eat. In addition to the seed he hands out to fellow gardeners, Maiuri often gives away jars of canned beans to friends and neighbors throughout the year. “I never sold nothing in my life,” he says. “I always figure the only thing you’re going to take with you when you leave here is what you give away while you’re here.”

“Hanovers were a mainstay,” says Charlie Radabaugh of this now-rare crop once widely grown throughout central West Virginia. “For a lot of families, that’s about all they had to eat.” Though Hanovers are harvested primarily for their roots, the plants produce large leaves that make excellent cooking greens. A single plant can produce hundreds of small seed pods. Charlie dries the pods over the winter months, then places them on a white bed sheet to collect thousands of tiny, black seeds before sharing them with friends and fellow gardeners. “I wish more people would start growing Hanovers,” he says. “That’s why I don’t mind sharing the seed.”

It’s harvest season in the garden at Lost Creek Farm, where Mike and Amy grow dozens of unique heirloom vegetables, from Homer Fike’s Yellow Oxheart tomatoes and Pink Annie half-runner beans, to Bloody Butcher corn and Red Hubbard squash. Behind each of those plants is a generations-deep community of people who’ve saved these cherished seeds and passed them down over the years. We visit just a few seed savers behind some of the crops grown at Lost Creek Farm, and we hear stories of seeds connecting people to their families and communities, as well as other cultures and far-away places.

Stories from the field, pickled for posterity. Conversations from around the table. A storytelling podcast that’s not just about food, and not just about rural places. From hosts Mike Costello, chef at Lost Creek Farm, and Jan Pytalski, associate editor at The Daily Yonder.

Mother’s Milk, Minimizing Suffering, and More Field Notes from the Hunt

Thanks to our sponsoring partners! Partial support for this episode came from 100 Days in Appalachia, whose support was made possible through a grant from The Wyncote Foundation. Research and oral history work that went into making this episode was supported, in part, through a West Virginia Humanities Council fellowship Mike received to document women keeping the Mountain State’s many sausage-making traditions alive.

A Storytelling Podcast from Lost Creek Farm and the Daily Yonder

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