Heritage veg: back to the future

By Abigail Wincott

This is a guest post by Abigail Wincott, Senior Lecturer, Broadcast Media & Broadcast Journalism, School of Art, Design & Media, University of Brighton. If you would like to write a guest blog for us, please get in touch.

Increasing numbers of gardeners are growing ‘heritage’ vegetables, and they’re receiving a fair amount of media attention. I want to know why this kind of heritage feels so timely, what it might tell us about what we want from our food systems, that conventional food production isn’t giving us.

The whole edifice of Western heritage is founded on a narrative of endangerment and the call to conserve (Samuel, 1994; Smith, 2006). So I knew I would see that story told, when I began studying a range of texts about heritage vegetables. But I noticed a strange pattern in the narrative structure that I wasn’t expecting to see. Or rather, two patterns.

The texts were written by quite a range of different authors, including anti-capitalist campaigners, heritage conservation bodies and lifestyle journalists. But there was a pretty clear divide between a range of consumer-oriented lifestyle media texts on one side, and everyone else on the other.

One model is what I would call a straight-forwardly linear narrative: the past is behind us, the future ahead. These texts, written by the non-journalists, wax lyrical about a past where food and food production systems were bountiful and in balance, where there was more variety, more character, more freedom. I think that this abundance is very much like what Penny wrote about in her blog from the 15th Oct.

The present in contrast is a time of terrible loss – what Raphael Samuel calls ‘the vertiginous sense of disappearing worlds’ (Samuel, 1994, p. 150), a very evocative phrase, which I think exactly captures the emotional force of these narratives:

Since the introduction of the seed legislation in the mid-1970s untold hundreds, or even thousands, have been lost. (Heritage Seed Library, seed saving guidelines leaflet, 2008);

our food culture is becoming impoverished and our plant heritage is disappearing. It’s like destroying a plant library that has been accumulated by farmers and growers over thousands of years. (European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources leaflet, 2009).

Apocalyptic predictions are sometimes made about global starvation or devastated landscapes, if we don’t preserve these traditional crops. All that’s not very surprising, it’s the classic endangered heritage narrative. And yet newspaper lifestyle articles are overwhelmingly constructing a very different story with heritage vegetables. Here the vocabulary is all about rebirth and revival, movement and dynamism.

The grammatical structures work hard too. For example one BBC news article claims ‘the outlook for heritage varieties has changed.’ and they ‘have moved out of the history books and back into vegetable patches, gardens and orchards’ (Briggs & Bardo, 2012). The use of this present perfect verb form, common in these texts, suggests a development which culminates in a current state – so in this case, heritage vegetables are something which have been rescued, which are no longer endangered, in stark contrast to the linear narratives.

So we realise then that these writers are taking the same heritage narrative of endangerment but it’s almost as if they have rushed us forward in time, so that the loss and endangerment are behind us, and now we are swept into a present-future, where consumers have already saved the heritage.

References

Briggs, H., & Bardo, M. (2012). The return of heritage fruit and veg varieties. BBC News Online Magazine, 3 May 2012. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17912734

Samuel, R. (1994). Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (2012 edition ed.). London: Verso.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.

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