“Preserving Our Roots: My Journey to Save Seeds and Stories” by John Coykendall with Christina Melton, LSU Press, 194 pages, hardcover, $39.95
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of interviewing and writing about some of Washington Parish’s dairy, watermelon and pumpkin farmers. However, I never could have captured the essence of that rural farm community the way internationally known horticulturist John Coykendall, with the help of co-author Christina Melton, does in “Preserving Our Roots: My Journey to Save Seeds and Stories.”
But, through their beautifully written and illustrated book, the authors have allowed me to renew my acquaintance with the hard-working farm families in Washington Parish.
Coykendall, master gardener at the Tennessee resort Blackberry Farm, has spent more than four decades saving heirloom seed varieties and passing his knowledge about Southern farm culture to younger generations. Now, he offers the stories, advice, sketches and recipes he’s recorded in more than 80 illustrated and handwritten journals in “Preserving Our Roots,” which is part of The Southern Table series from LSU Press.
These stories are mostly from people he’s befriended in what he calls “an off-the-beaten-path farming community” in southeast Louisiana.
“To me,” Coykendall says in the book's introduction, “Washington Parish represents a time capsule of what life was like in most of America up until the beginning of the last century. It is a microcosm of an agrarian culture that is in danger of being lost.”
The book, organized by season, chronicles the knowledge he’s collected since his first visit to Washington Parish in 1971. He discusses staple crops, agricultural practices and provides 40 favorite recipes from Washington Parish residents who have befriended him.
“Just as I am motivated to save stories, I feel called to find and save rare seeds from food crops we once grew,” Coykendall says. “We are in a race against time to preserve these vanishing varieties, and to preserve the knowledge of how to grow them and their surrounding culture.”
He has saved more than 500 varieties of seeds, mostly beans, peas and corn — many from Louisiana.
Coykendall, a trained artist, credits his Washington Parish friend Terry Seal with suggesting he do something with the oral histories and sketches from his journals. In 2015, he met Melton, of Baton Rouge, deputy director at Louisiana Public Broadcasting and a documentary filmmaker, who visited Blackberry Farm, and he showed her his journals. That meeting resulted in their working on the book and a documentary film for LPB.
“Preserving Our Roots,” illustrated with numerous sketches, journal pages and lovely photographs by Baton Rouge photographer and graphic designer Sarah Hackenberg, is sure to find an appreciative audience among gardeners, history buffs and home cooks.
Cheramie Sonnier is a food writer and columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter, @CheramieSonnier.
Book Talk, Signing
WHEN: Talk, 1:45 p.m.; Signing, 2:45 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at Louisiana Book Festival
WHERE: Talk with Coykendall and Melton, Senate Committee Room E at the State Capitol; signing, Barnes & Noble Booksellers tent