If you are itching to plant your summer garden, or ready to eat from your favorite cook’s, you would do well to hightail it to the Arboretum this Saturday for an event built around a remarkable new book. Co-hosting is the fine Garden Conservancy, not known for hightailing it most places. In honor of my North Carolina mother, though, I am hooting my thanks for their holler to this Southern-rooted event celebrating From Seed to Skillet, a welcoming and welcomed book from longtime Los Angeles grower and garden designer Jimmy Williams and his collaborator, garden writer Susan Heeger.
From Seed to Skillet is a comprehensive and joyful volume subtitled A Guide to Growing, Tending, Harvesting, and Cooking Up Fresh, Healthful Food to Share with People You Love. Now there’s a mouthful. Yet there’s even more stew to chew inside these 170 oversize pages. This is a book for old and young, rich and poor, those with alluvial soil (us), or humid summers (them), or those looking for a miracle, which comes in the form of a seed.
The book is pleasing on so many levels. The “skillet” in the title sounds like the slap of the screen door thrown open for a long-awaited return home. Williams lovingly introduces his large, multiracial, multigenerational family, including matriarch Grandmother Eloise, at whose side he and his 11 siblings learned to garden on Long Island, New York. Grandmother Eloise’s people were the Gullah of South Carolina, descendents of Caribbean slaves. His maternal grandmother, Muriel, half Shinnecock Indian, brought her people’s cuisine into the mix, and mother Gertrude, lighter skinned and with red hair and a splash of Irish blood, kept the clan busy while dad Lawrence was away in the Army. Self-reliance was a big deal to Eloise and Gertrude, and with a populous brood, growing what’s for dinner was a given.
In Williams’s family, gardening was a tradition carried from generations past. Heeger unfolds his stories plainly and simply, withholding the syrup. Tomato seeds that he saves and germinates every year came to America in an ancestor’s pocket five or six generations ago. Eloise’s corn and butterbean seeds are recalled as jewels in their tiny glass jars in the garden shed. In the present tense, Williams’s son Logan favors all mints in the world of herbs, our “ticket to distant places.”
Seed to Skillet has blessedly large fonts, and the chapters, sidebars and recipes (oooh, the recipes!) are laid out almost like a comforting children’s storybook, on medium-weight card stock. Nice touch, literally and figuratively, especially for those prone to paper cuts. It’s not going to happen on this volume’s watch. The chapter divisions are a kick, too. They feature a carnival ticket motif with jolly, Easy Reader lettering. Not that I’m trying to make the book sound juvenile—it’s anything but. But this personal history is a kindly retelling of lessons children absorb, even when they don’t yet know it. The soil science is thorough but not pedantic, there are templates and materials lists for gorgeous DIY raised planter boxes, and the authors provide sources for purchase if you’re all thumbs.
The crisp, splendid photography captures the succulence of fresh vegetables, the hues and grains of soil in pots and on hands, and the must of fluffy mulch. The glistening worm compost looks like a cassoulet (yeah, I’ll eat that!), and the seeds stored in little glass jars look like toy soldiers ready for battle on Granny’s kitchen table.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some daydreaming to finish, about blueberry slump, sweet and sour cucumbers, sweet-pepper dip, and the seeds to plant to get there.
From Seed to Skillet: Vegetable Gardening with Jimmy Williams & Susan Heeger
Saturday, February 26, 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
$20 for Garden Conservancy and Arboretum members; $25 for non-members (includes admission to the Arboretum)
Tickets available at gardenconservancy.com or call 845.265.2029; box lunch of Jimmy Williams’s recipes for sale after the talk