As a kid, my family was well-off enough that food was plentiful, and our mother was a great Southern cook. Our dad also cooked — primarily the game we collected by hunting or fishing. Between having great food available and being a big kid, I have always been a ‘hearty’ eater.

Nonetheless, there have been times in my adult life when food was limited, and not readily available. That combination of some minor deprivation and large appetite has made me conscious of food and food waste in a way that means I enjoy and look forward to leftovers and ‘involved combinations’ of extra food into unusual meals. I also keep an eye out to use leftover foods before they become unpalatable or inedible.

I should admit that my inclination is to always eat too much, and I have suffered through dieting numerous times in my life. I am a serious meat-eater, but really enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables. As a result, our house has little food waste. Any non-dairy and non-meat excess can go into the compost pile to be made into soil for next year’s garden.

A friend of mine noted that for years he has collected seeds/nuts from various trees that he has encountered. On visits to local parks and open space, he plants them in suitable areas, then visits them occasionally and has been able to watch many of them thrive.

I also recently encountered the concept of saving lemon seeds, and planting them in pots as houseplants. It’s not unlike the old practice of rooting avocado seeds on toothpicks in a glass of water, but with the added benefit of the lemon sprouts giving a fragrant citrusy scent to the room.   

For some, the collection of fruit and vegetable seeds is more than a passing fancy. Writer Emily Baron Cadloff has noted that for “Adam Alexander, author and horticulturist, seeds are more than just a job, hobby or passion. They’re a lifeline … Seeds ‘are a visceral connection that I have with my most distant ancestors. It takes me back way beyond civilization … When you save your own seeds … you grow them for yourself and also share them; you are observing this cycle from seed to crop to saving endlessly going round and round. And that is something that connects me directly with those neolithic farmers.’”

Alexander travels the word looking for “… little-known heritage varieties, as well as those plants on the edge of becoming lost … Over the years, he amassed quite a collection, now boasting seeds for more than 500 plant varieties, from which he grows 70 to 100 different crops each year in his home garden in eastern Wales.”

Crystal Sands reported that, “In Biblical texts, Hebrew farmers are commanded to leave some of their crops after harvesting for the poor.” She notes “a study published in 2019 found that more than 30 percent of crops on 123 farms in California were left behind …” The concept, although poorly applied in California, is that fruits or vegetables left over in the fields after harvesting can be gathered by gleaning.

She continues, “… frequently, food is left on the fields because it doesn’t meet grocery store standards for uniformity, even though the food is still good to eat. Gleaning, something that’s practiced all over the world, puts this leftover food to good use and provides to those in need. It both reduces waste and feeds the hungry.”

She reports on gleaner Katie Sprague, “Her grandparents and parents were gleaners, and now she gleans as well. ‘I grew up gleaning … We were a large family with a small income, and gleaning helped keep us fed.’” 

“For Sprague, gleaning is a part of a lifestyle of tradition and frugality. ‘It’s just the tradition of making do with what’s available and utilizing everything you can. You learn that pretty quickly when you grow up poor … Gleaning makes me feel connected to my ancestors, to my history, in a way that is hard to adequately explain. I get the feeling they are right there with me.”

The practices of saving seeds, gleaning and eliminating food waste seem to provide some ethereal link to a deeper sense within us, some kind of reminder of our past selves. This “visceral connection with distant ancestors” helps explain the popularity of gardening and growing our own food, even when our circumstances don’t demand it.

There is something primitive about the interest in gardening, farming, hunting and fishing that is inexplicable. It’s like it lives just below the (much heralded) veneer of civilization, and must be innate in the human condition.

I say, “Let’s go get visceral!”

Additional Information:

Emily Baron Cadloff, This Seed Detective Travels the World Tracking Down Lost Crops, September 29, 2022, Modern Farmer

Amy Grant, Citrus Seed Storage: Tips on Harvesting Seeds From Citrus Fruits, 2022, Gardening Knowhow

Crystal Sands, ‘Tis the Season for Gleaning, September 30, 2022, Modern Farmer

The Gleaners by Jean Francois Millet

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