The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Heirloom Vegetables
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Port Macquarie, NSW, but my family moved to Canberra when I was four, so I consider myself a Canberran.
Growing up in Canberra in the 1970s was utopian. In the afterglow of the Whitlam era there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the Arts and Sciences, and we had a public education system second to none in the world. I count myself very lucky that I grew up in Canberra at that time.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve, I wanted to be a botanist; at eighteen, a musician; and at thirty, a gardener. I have always loved plants and nature, as well as early music. I have found it difficult to confine myself to one career, so I have taken two: music and gardening.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
It has taken me most of my adult life to realise that the world does not exist in black and white; that between those extremes lies a vast area of grey. This is an ongoing journey for me, and I feel it’s going quite well!
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
Moving to Canberra at the age of four was probably a defining event in my life. Although I missed out on growing up on the beach, I had access to the best public education imaginable. Without the free public education opportunities I received in Canberra in the 70s and 80s, I suspect my life would be considerably less rich than it is now.
Living in the Netherlands for three years was a transformative experience, which really broadened my horizons.
Being offered a job as a gardener the Diggers Club was an important turning point for me. At that time in my life I was about to embark on a PhD in music and a career in academe, which would have been wonderful, except for the fact that academics are continually forced to spend too much of their time, cap in hand, begging for money, rather being allowed to concentrate on doing what they are good at. At least mowing lawns and clipping hedges for a living I would not have to suffer that indignity.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
Books are anything but obsolete. They work well as a technology, and I can’t see any viable alternative for replacing them soon. Think about it: you can no longer access the information stored on a floppy disc or cassette tape from 15 years ago, but you can still read a book from the year 1500.
One particular quality I like in books is that they are scrutinised by many sets of eyes before they get into print. With the internet, by contrast, anybody with a computer can publish any half-baked idea or half-truth they like. Gardening websites are awash with absolute twaddle, which reproduces itself at a rate of knots and then comes to be accepted as ‘fact’. I wanted to publish a book in part to help counter this alarming trend.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
My latest book, Heirloom Vegetables, is a celebration of the beauty and diversity of heirloom vegetables. It is predominantly a social history of vegetables, telling the stories about where humans and vegetables have been together, and where we might go in the future. It puts vegetables into their broader family contexts, as a way of showing just how much humans have manipulated and changed vegetables to suit our own ends over many millennia of domestication. The final section of the book gives readers advice on how to grow their own heirlooms, based on my experience as a gardener.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
I would like to see greedy, rapacious and self-interested people excluded from holding positions of power.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
Can I have three?
I admire the 2014 Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, for the dignity and forbearance he has shown in the face of some very ugly provocation.
I admire Julian Burnside for speaking up for human rights, and calling out the mean-spirited, inhumane policies of successive governments.
Most of all I admired my late grandmother, who showed me how few possessions you need to be happy, and how to be thankful for what you have got. She lived her life very simply, but she radiated love and contentment.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To give away ambition and live like my grandmother.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Be yourself, and write what you know.
Simon, thank you for playing.
by Simon Rickard
‘Vegetables are masterpieces of human ingenuity – their pasts and futures are in our hands.’
How often do you hear someone complain that tomatoes don’t taste like they used to? It’s becoming a common concern, as food production is increasingly controlled by multinational corporations more interested in profit than flavour. People who care about their food are growing their own vegetables in droves – and especially heirlooms for their wonderfully diverse flavours, shapes and colours. Not to mention their rich history and weird and wonderful names – who could resist a lettuce called ‘Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed’, not be intrigued by the potato that ‘Makes the Daughter-in-Law Cry’, or fail to be moved by the ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ bean?
In this lively, passionate and at times political introduction to the world of heirloom vegetables, gardener Simon Rickard describes the history of many of his favourite varieties, encourages you to get growing yourself, and explains why he believes edible gardening is so important to our future – and the future of the planet.