David Remnick: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick. Now I'm reliably told it's that time of year, when people feel that overpowering urge to dig, to get their hands in the dirt, whether it's in the backyard, or the vegetable garden, or in the flower pots that are legally teetering on the fire escape. They place their seeds, or delicate little seedlings in the soil, dreaming of the bounty to come. I have a confession to make, I'm not one of those people. I'm happy to buy vegetables in the supermarket, and maybe I'll keep some florists in business for all of us, but someone who goes in for all that dirty work is my colleague, Jill Lepore.
Jill Lepore: I'm a pretty terrible gardener. I love to plant things, but I'm terrible at actually growing anything, but I just love the whole process. I love that just muck of it.
David Remnick: Jill Lepore is a staff writer, as well as a Professor of History at Harvard University. Jill, as you know, this is my area, oh God, of least expertise imaginable. I think I once did grow a potato in a glass of water when you're a kid. Is that what you do? You stick a potato--
Jill Lepore: Yes. Or you put electrodes on it and try to get potato electricity for the science fair. That counts.
David Remnick: I might have done that. It's possible I burned the kitchen towel.
Jill Lepore: That seems more of your alley.
David Remnick: Well, I want to know what it does for you. In other words, you have kids, you have dogs, you write lots of books. You write for The New Yorker, you teach at Harvard. A, where do you fit it in, and why do you fit it in? What's it do for your soul?
Jill Lepore: Oh, it's therapy for anxiety. Is that too embarrassing to admit?
David Remnick: Not at all.
Jill Lepore: I really lose equilibrium if I'm not actively doing something. That's probably why I write so much. I become a pain in the neck to have around if I'm not engaged in something that's really stimulating, but also to the point of exhaustion. Gardening actually, is that, but without the manic stimulation. It gets a bit quite exhausting. You have to really think about it a lot. I like lying in bed at night. What are you going to think about when you're trying to get to sleep? Well, you could be thinking about how much you'll organize this essay. What would be a good lead?
What would be something to think about? What should you read next? It's a little bit more pleasant when spring comes, and you can think about, "Well in that quadrant, last year, I did the butternut squash, but it didn't do very well. I think if I put the tomatoes there and I really, really compost it, I think I might have more success." That's just-- Oh, that part of your brain can calm down.
David Remnick: It eases the motor a little bit, brings down the RPMs.
Jill Lepore: Yes. I suspect that's not uncommon reason that people like to garden. You're entrapped in a completely different rhythm, and it's also entirely out of your control. Maybe it is in your control if you actually are a good gardener. I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I just keep trying things and it's interesting to see what works and what doesn't work and to feel like it's a never-ending process of education. It's like being in a library and you have read none of the books. You will always be finding something out. It's always interesting.
David Remnick: You are reading the books. You recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker on your addiction to seed catalogs. For those who aren't familiar, what are seed catalogs and why do you love them so so?
Jill Lepore: They come in the winter. They usually start coming in December or January. This beautiful colorful, often glossy, but sometimes old-timey newspaper printy black and white drawings, and they're from nurseries around the country, seed savers, seed preservers, seed developers. You can place your order for seeds for spring. They're a little bit like-- Do you remember when Elaine worked for J Peterman on Seinfeld?
David Remnick: I do.
Jill Lepore: The copy is a lot like J Peterman. Remember the guy who played J Peterman, and he had that baritone voice?
David Remnick: I do. [laughs]
[A clip from Seinfeld playing]
Jill Lepore: Whenever I read the seed catalog copy, they're telling you about some plant I always hear it in that guy's voice because they're hilarious as if a rutabaga is going to change your life.
David Remnick: A lot of these catalogs are selling what are called heirloom seeds or heirloom plants. I know that word when it's attached to the word tomato, but what does heirloom mean?
Jill Lepore: No, it just means a good tomato that you have to pay a lot of money for.
David Remnick: And it's gnarly-looking.
Jill Lepore: Yes. Heirloom seed movement is, you don't really hear that phrase until the 1960s. It was a back-to-the-land movement when many people were no longer farming, but there's a hippie, Whole Earth Catalog, passion. A lot of those people are like, "I want to grow the seeds that my great grandfather grew, my great grandmother told me about," and they go into attics and basements and they find old seed stock, and some of those people start seed banks.
Because what happens over the course of the 20th century is that basically, big agribusiness consolidates the seed stock, and the biodiversity is really lost. When people want to grow or buy or sell heirloom vegetables or other kinds of heirloom plants, it's a way of trying to contribute toward restoring biodiversity, but it's also a "screw you" to big farm.
David Remnick: Well, I'm sure big farm is falling over backwards in a faint because of our discussion, but rumour has it, Jill, that you have a particular heirloom growing in your garden, a kind of beet. What is it?
Jill Lepore: Yes. Well, I have it planted. It hasn't sprouted yet, so we'll see if I have this growing in my garden. I did get these seeds from this place called Baker Creek, which is an heirloom seed company in Missouri and they're called Chioggia. It's an Italian heirloom of garden beet. They're first identified in print in I think the 1840s. Can I read you a little bit from the seed catalog description of this variety?
David Remnick: Absolutely.
Jill Lepore: Okay, but you got to imagine that J Peterman guy or I know Phil Hartman or Vince [unintelligible 00:07:09]. Chioggia beets is the most whimsical veggie in the patch. Slice the roots to reveal concentric rings of pink and white and this fun variety adds pop to salads and pizzazz to pickles. Chioggia beets was originated in the historic fishing town in Italy just across the lagoon from Venice, dubbed Little Venice for its canals and ancient charms. Local Venetians know that this is the town to visit for authentic family stuff. It just goes on.
David Remnick: Pizzazz. You don't usually use the word pizzazz anymore.
Jill Lepore: Pizzazz. Adding pizzazz to pickles.
David Remnick: Well, what else are you growing in your garden? Flowers, trees, vegetables, I'm curious.
Jill Lepore: I have a lot of fruit trees. I have a blue pearmain apple tree, which I got from Scott farm in Dummerston Vermont. The blue pearmain is famous because of Henry David Thoreau. That's the only reason I have this pearmain apple, although my husband really loves these apples. They are actually really good. Thoreau wrote an essay in 1862, published in The Atlantic called Wild Apples.
David Remnick: If it was in The Atlantic, it couldn't have been any good. If he had published it in The New Yorker--
Jill Lepore: It couldn't have been any good.
David Remnick: That's the way to your stuff.
Jill Lepore: Here's the thing. It's the middle of a civil war, and the guy writes an essay about wild apples. I just love that. Life does go on. He talks about the apples. There's this line where he says, "Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits." There's something about the modesty. It's not a fancy fruit, and apple trees grow wild all over New England. He's feeding himself. He's trying to live on no money. He's still recollecting his Walden years, but just in general, he's trying to live on no money. There's a blue pearmain that he goes to visit on the edge of a swamp and he says that the apples are crisp and lively.
David Remnick: Jill Lepore, thank you so much, and good luck with everything in your garden this season.
Jill Lepore: Thanks. I'll send you some beets.
David Remnick: By the way, I've had those beets in a salad. They're delish.
Jill Lepore: Okay, good. I'm excited.
David Remnick: The New Yorker's Jill Lepore. Jill is the author of These Truths: A History of the United States. She'll be back on the program in a few weeks to unveil a big history project in time for the 4th of July. I'm David Remnick. Thanks so much for joining us today. Enjoy your time in the garden and see you next time.
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