Kentucky has a long distinguished history of seed selection and preservation. Before Bill Best got serious with heirloom green beans seeds, there were Native Americans who put Kentucky on the world map before there were maps: four thousand years ago.
We seldom get credit for being a world center of plant domestication, but Kentucky is right up there with Mesoamerica for corn and Africa for barley and oats.
Native Americans selected lambsquarter (Chenopodium sp.) and gourds for their bigger seeds, and also for thinner seed coats for easier germination. They stored their seeds in the dry rock overhangs around the Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky. Neither lambs quarter nor gourds won the race to the top of the food chart, but archaeological evidence suggests early breeders and seed collectors knew what they were doing.
There have also been Kentucky carbon-dated beans at least 1,000 years old. These could be “cut-shorts” that are still popular heirloom beans in the Southern Appalachians. They are called cut-shorts because the seeds completely fill the pods, which are squared off at the ends.
The “three sisters”-beans, corn and squash-have been staples in Southern Appalachian gardens for as long as gardens have been planted. Beans fixed nitrogen for corn that, in turn, provided support for the climbing beans. The ground-covering squash smothered many of the weed seedlings.
Bill Best realized that it was time to take a look back to a period when heirloom strains of beans were shared in a community simply because they tasted good.
Best has spent a long time looking to the past to save the future. He was a professor, coach and an administrator at Berea College for 40 years and co-founded the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center there.
The Best Quest: Search for the most flavorful homegrown regional vegetables. As a child growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Haywood County, North Carolina, he had savored the taste of heirloom green beans and tomatoes.
“The high price of cheap food kicked flavor to the curb, ” Bill Best says.
The more popular green bean seed strains lacked the taste that he remembered from his youth. Newer hybrids were bred for mechanical harvesting. “I couldn’t believe how bad the Blue Lake bean was.”
Bill Best is disturbed over the monopolization of modern agricultural seed. He’s doing his best to increase options, not minimize them. He has collected over 700 different bean seed strains to preserve for future generations.
Best started the non-profit Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in the 1990s to prove that “products this region can produce can compete with large-scale farms on the basis of quality… We want to use our skills and information base (developed over many decades) to bring to the forefront the importance of quality heirloom fruits and vegetables. It is our hope that this Center will go far toward making mountain agriculture sustainable.”
Best’s Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia explains the fascinating variety of beans, tomatoes, apples, corn, “candy roasters” (squash) and cucumbers that have been passed down for generations. Best appreciates the gardeners and farmers who’ve learned the value of good seeds and flavorful vegetables.
The stories are funny. The turkey craw heirloom bean seed, as legend has it, was found in the craw of a turkey. And seeds of the ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato helped pay off a mortgage.
Bill Best appreciates the cultural significance of Jack and the Beanstalk, the English folk tale, still popular in the Southern Appalachians.
A modern version, Jack and the Wonder Beans, was beautifully written, in an Eastern Kentucky, lyrical vernacular, by James Still in 1977.
Jack makes a deal with a gypsy and receives three beans. “Not common beans. Not regular beans.” The gypsy calls them “Wonder beans.”
She gives Jack simple instructions.
“Sow them and they will feed your life tee-total.”