WALLAND, Tenn. - In the spring of 1959, young John Coykendall was exploring the abandoned Ebenezer Railroad Station in Knoxville when he came across a "life-altering" treasure: the keys to a 100-year-old garden.
Stashed among some old newspapers and magazines was a perfectly preserved 1913 catalog from the William Henry Maule seed company in Philadelphia. Seed catalogs may not be the stuff most 16-year-old boys dream of. But for Coykendall, a future farmer and artist who would earn a master of fine arts degree in printmaking and engraving, the catalog's exquisitely illustrated pages of Noxall beans, Surehead cabbage, and Tennessee sweet potato pumpkins lit a flame that would inspire his career.
"Just look at those seed cavities! Now that is a perfect Ponderosa!" he said, tracing his finger across the intricately etched black-and-white cross-section of a tomato. "To me, these illustrations can be more accurate than color photos, which can be deceiving."
We were standing in the shade of the rustic garden shed at Blackberry Farm, the 4,200-acre luxury resort in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains where Coykendall, now 70, is the master gardener. But he was most eager to lead me outside to Blackberry's three-acre culinary garden, where many of these pictures had bloomed into colorful life.
Striding up the hill from a long wooden picnic table where preparations were underway for these vegetables to become the main event in the evening's special "Centennial Garden" dinner, the overall-clad Coykendall gripped a carved walking stick in his deeply tanned hands and headed to the rear of the plot.
"Old Henry Maule's corn still grows pretty good!" said Coykendall, who was suddenly dwarfed by a row of Hickory King stalks rising 12 feet high.
The Hickory King, whose huge yellow kernels were once prized for creamed corn, pickled corn, and grits, was just one of the dozens of heirloom breeds assembled by Coykendall and now ripe on the vine in Blackberry's rich, sustainably farmed organic soil. Names like Stowell's Evergreen corn, Wardwell's kidney wax beans, Ailsa Craig onions, Perkins Mammoth okra, and Chalk's Early Jewel and June Pink tomatoes hark back a century to the days before industrialized agriculture bred the flavor out of vegetables in favor of shippability and shelf-life.
And Philadelphia was the "seed capital of America" during that era, says food historian and author William Woys Weaver. The Maule Co., which operated from 1887 to the late 1940s and whose eight-story building still stands at 21st and Arch, was one of nearly a dozen large seed companies based in Philadelphia. Weaver says the city benefited from its international access as a port, as well as from Quaker businessmen who saw seed as a profitable, nonviolent industry connected to nature. Burpee's remains among the most famous. The David Landreth Seed Co., one of the oldest, sold to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
Philadelphia's status as a printing center was another plus, Weaver says, as its seed companies were among the first to issue catalogs featuring the detailed chromolithograph engravings that so captured Coykendall's imagination.
That Maule catalog was responsible, Coykendall said, for launching his lifelong pursuit as a seed-saver, preserving and sharing heirloom species with correspondents like Weaver, and through national organizations like Seed Savers Exchange. With the catalog's hundredth anniversary this year, Coykendall's idea for a celebration took root in January.
Among his prizes are the Tennessee sweet potato pumpkins that took him nearly three decades to track down. He tenderly pushed aside some large-leaved vines with the tip of his walking stick and revealed the cache of mottled white 25-pound bell-shaped squash reposing below like precious treasures: "I never had a pie made from anything better."
Those pumpkins are a fall crop, like some of the other 37 Maule varieties he has gathered for this garden, from the Seven Top Turnips to the Philadelphia White Box radishes that will be ready by October.
At the base of the garden on that August eve, however, Blackberry's chefs had prepared a meal that burst with a late-summer vibrance.
"Oh my God, these are the best tomatoes I've ever tasted," gushed my wife, Elizabeth, slicing into the June Pinks, Ponderosas, and Livingston's Globes that radiated like sunshine beneath creamy white dabs of Blackberry Farm's own fresh sheep's-milk cheese and tender threads of snappy Whippoorwill field peas.
"We call those 'hillbilly haricots,' " says Blackberry Farm's executive chef, Joseph Lenn.
"It's that wonderful old-time flavor," says Coykendall.
Even in this age, when the label "heirloom" has become such a frequent marketing buzzword - so common, it's almost cheapened - these ingredients, served just feet from where they were harvested hours before, produced remarkable flavors many of us had never tasted. And the kitchen's simple preparations were ideal.
The Hickory King and Stowell's Evergreen sweet corn, shaved off the cob and roasted on a baking sheet with smoked Kentucky paprika, was absolutely irresistible when blended with the earthy tang of smoked onion jam.
Fresh field peas needed little more than vegetable stock and some basic aromatics to render into Le Creuset pots of naturally creamy, savory stew. Wide copper pans of summer squash casserole, sweetened with both Southport White Globe and Ailsa Craig onions, then thickened with cheese-rich custard and stone-ground corn bread, were the picture of rustic elegance beneath golden ribbons of squash blossoms. Platefuls of Perkins Mammoth okra, sliced lengthwise to reduce their natural slime, then cleverly charred over a wood-fired grill, were something of a revelation.
With fiddle player Abigail Sinders and guitarist Ryan Tungett singing sweet mountain tunes at the garden's edge, and a string of lights glowing above the 40-some guests as night fell on this clearing of hickory, black gum, and poplar trees, the moment felt almost magical.
Is this really what food tasted like 100 years ago?
"We got it right the first time as far as taste and flavor," says Coykendall, "and a great seedsman like Henry Maule deserves to live on as an important part of agricultural history. I believe he's going to get his recognition now."
Coykendall hoisted a cold Mason jar of Blackberry Farm-brewed ale with a look of supreme gardener's satisfaction: "I always love these garden dinners, but this one has been my favorite."
Blackberry Farm's Summer Squash Casserole
Makes 8 servings
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small Vidalia or other sweet onion, finely chopped
4 medium yellow summer squash (about 2 pounds total), cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup grated Manchego cheese
1 cup fresh corn bread crumbs
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Squash blossoms, sliced into ribbons for garnish (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 debrees. Butter an 8-by-8-inch baking dish and set aside.
2. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Spoon off 2 tablespoons of the melted butter and set aside. Add the onion to the skillet and cook, stirring often, until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the squash and stir well. Cover and cook, stirring often, for 7 to 8 minutes, until the squash is tender but not browned.
3. Transfer the squash and onion to a large bowl, let it cool for a few minutes, then stir in the Parmesan, ¾ cup of the Manchego, and ½ cup of the bread crumbs. Stir in the eggs, cream, salt, and pepper. Transfer the squash mixture to the prepared baking dish.
4. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ¼ cup of Manchego and the remaining ½ cup of bread crumbs. Drizzle with the reserved melted butter and toss. Scatter the crumb mixture over the casserole.
5. Bake for 30 minutes, until the top is crisp and golden brown and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Top with extra bread crumbs and sliced squash blossoms (if available). Serve hot.
6. Once cooled, the casserole should be covered with foil and refrigerated. Keep the foil in place when warming the casserole for 30 minutes at 325.
Per serving: 218 calories; 7 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 15 grams fat; 86 milligrams cholesterol; 505 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Blackberry Farm's Grilled Okra
1 pound okra
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon sweet Aleppo chile flakes
Salt to taste
1. In a mixing bowl, toss all ingredients together. Season the okra with salt.
2. Prepare a grill, preferably natural wood or charcoal. Once grill is hot, place okra on grill (it might be necessary to place a small rack on the grates to keep the okra from falling through) and cook until okra starts to lightly char on each side, 3 to 5 minutes depending on size of okra. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 131 calories; 3 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 11 grams fat; no cholesterol; 163 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Blackberry Farm's Stewed Field Peas
2 cups fresh field peas (i.e. black-eyed peas, washday peas, purple hull peas, cowpeas); dried peas can also be used once soaked
4 cups vegetable stock
1 rib celery
1 carrot, split
2 whole shallots
10 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1. If using dried peas, soak overnight, then drain.
2. Combine all ingredients in a pot and bring to a simmer and cook until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes for fresh peas, 40 to 45 minutes for dried peas.
3. Season cooking liquid once tender and let sit for 10 minutes. Remove carrot, celery, shallot, and herbs, and serve.
Per serving: 111 calories; 9 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; 2 grams fat; no cholesterol; 782 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Blackberry Farm's Roasted Corn With Smoked Paprika and Smoked Onion Jam
4 ears sweet corn, cut raw from cob
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons Blackberry Farm's Smoked Onion Jam (see note)
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Combine raw corn kernels with olive oil, paprika, and salt. Spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet.
3. Roast in oven for five minutes. Combine with smoked onion jam and serve immediately.
Note: Blackberry Farm's Smoked Onion Jam is available at Williams-Sonoma (see MarketBasket).
Per serving: 83 calories; 2 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 3 grams fat; no cholesterol; 292 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText