Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Interview Lawrence L. Rettig: part 3

Lawrence L. Rettig is the author of Gardening the Amana Way, which will be released this month. University of Iowa Press editor Holly Carver asked him a few questions about the upcoming book. Here's the last section of our interview with him.

HC: Tell us more about your seed bank.
LLR: The seven plant varieties in our bank were all grown in pre-1932 Amana communal kitchen gardens. Seed for each of these varieties was brought from Germany first to the Ebenezer settlements in New York (beginning in 1843) and subsequently to the Amana Colonies. There were many other vegetable varieties in communal Amana kitchen gardens. Unfortunately, they were no longer grown when we returned to the Amanas in the late 1970s. Here are the varieties we found and continue to preserve.

Amana radish (Vielfarbiger Rettich): With two sowings, this radish provides both a spring and a fall crop. It’s a fairly large, mild variety that has amazing storage qualities. A fall harvest will keep in a refrigerator’s crisper until the following spring. Some local families still break out the radishes on January 1 to celebrate the new year.

Amana string bean (Grüne Bohnen): Typical of many European varieties, this green string bean is flat, as opposed to its more rounded American counterpart. Its flavor is delicious and superior to that of any other variety we’ve tried. It dries well and can be stored this way for rehydration and consumption during the winter.

Celeriac (Knollecellerie): Celeriac, or root celery, is still a popular vegetable in Europe and has enjoyed increasing popularity in the United States recently. It’s a celery that is grown not for its stalks but for its bulbous root, which has a mild, pleasing celery flavor and is used raw in salads or cooked in soups. The stalks are small, strong-tasting, stringy, and generally unpalatable.

Citron melon (Zitter): Looking for all the world like miniature watermelons, citrons are bound to disappoint anyone who attempts to eat one raw. The flesh is hard, white, and practically tasteless. Citrons are eaten primarily in a pickled form, with the dominant flavoring usually that of cloves and cinnamon.

Lettuce (Eiersalaat “egg lettuce”): This unique leaf lettuce variety is known locally as egg lettuce, because it was usually served in communal kitchens with chopped hard-boiled egg in the dressing. The leaves are almost completely yellow in color, very tender, with a slight buttery flavor and texture. Other advantages include heat resistance, slowness in bolting, and retarded development of bitterness.

Ebenezer onion (Zwiwwel): A popular onion in the Northeast and Upper Midwest because of its winter keeping qualities, it was introduced by the Amana Inspirationists during their sojourn at Ebenezer, New York. Huge surpluses in the Ebenezer kitchen gardens resulted in the sale of this onion on the nearby Buffalo, New York, market. Its popularity was quickly established because of its superb keeping qualities.

European black salsify (Schwarzwurzel): Schwarzwurzel (“black root”) is still a popular vegetable in German gardens today. Amana folks prepared it by scraping the black skin from the root (in carrot fashion) and simmering it in water or stock, perhaps with onions, the liquid being thickened to a sauce before serving. The flavor is unique, mild, and delicious, quite unlike the American salsify or oyster root.

HC: What gardens do you like to visit in Iowa?
LLR: Reiman Gardens, Iowa State University, Ames, tops the list. The rest are in no particular order of preference: Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden, Des Moines; Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Garden; Iowa Arboretum, Madrid; Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah; Brucemore, Cedar Rapids; Living History Farms, Urbandale; and Noelridge Greenhouse and Park, Cedar Rapids.

HC: ou are definitely an expert in all things gardening. But I bet that you learned something from writing this book. What did you learn?
LLR: I think the most important thing, personally, concerns the trellises that still grace the south and west walls of many Amana residences. Their purpose and origin are often among the first inquiries I get from visitors. Their purpose is well established. They provide shade during the summer to keep residences a bit cooler, and the grapevines that grew on them (and in some instances still do so today) provide food. But no one seemed to know how their construction and use came about. I found the smoking gun. I’m a bit of a tease, so you’ll have to read the book to discover their source.

I also realized for the first time how powerful a flower can be in facilitating social change. I’m speaking here of the lotus lily that somehow showed up once the Lily Lake had formed. Its grand display in July and August drew hordes of visitors to Amana—up to 1,500 on a Sunday—breaching the comparative isolation of Old Amana in the 1920s. Young members of the community waded into the lake to pick lily bouquets and sold them to eager tourists, which provided pocket money that members were not supposed to have. This so raised the ire of Amana elders that they threatened to annihilate the lilies. Eventually they relented, but the course toward the Great Change and an end to communal living had been set.

Beyond trellises and lotuses, it was a great joy to learn the details of how communal Amana gardened. I was especially impressed with the organizational skills involved and how smoothly the production and preparation of food were carried out.

HC: What advice would you give to budding authors who want to focus on gardening?
LLR: Write from experience whenever possible. If you’re going to write about a plant, grow it. If you’re going to write about techniques, be sure you’ve mastered them. Always keep your target audience in mind. Speak to them. Consider joining the Garden Writers Association ( Their mentoring program is outstanding. They have a great database of authors you can contact for advice.

Gardening the Amana Way by Lawrence L. Rettig

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