A lot has happened since the days when Popeye served as a spokesman for spinach. Although that most-beloved-of-all-sailormen was clearly thinking in our best interests when he advocated for leafy greens, he was waging an uphill battle. Back in Popeye’s day, vegetables got no respect. Nobody paid a ghost of attention to peppers or eggplants. Kale was not yet on the radar. Broccoli was seen as a nuisance factor. During that interlude, vegetables were the underdogs on the dinner plate. And no wonder the inner beauty lurking in the produce from the farm went totally unnoticed. For Popeye and his generation, vegetables and fruits came in cans.
Amy Goldman changed all that. Beginning with “Melons for the Passionate Grower” (Artisan, 2002) and moving along to “The Compleat Squash” (Artisan, 2004) and “The Heirloom Tomato” (Bloomsbury, 2008), Goldman collaborated with photographer Victor Schrager to open our eyes to the rich history of the plants on our plates. Suddenly, vegetables were sexy. They have a past and the books expose those deep ethnic roots. Vegetables from all over the world were shown, paired with their legacies. The protagonists in her books went far beyond the single cantaloupe stocked in the supermarket. She trained our taste buds to savor flavors beyond our fondest dreams. Those books put farm fresh food on the map.
Of course, Goldman was aided in her mission by an army of people in the food movement who were making vegetables (beyond potatoes) more prominent on menus. But she introduced us to the raw materials, straight from the field. Farming owes a huge debt of gratitude to Amy Goldman, her adventuresome palette and her artistic eye. And she continues to campaign for cantaloupes and their kin. Just when we thought that all had been revealed in the fruit and vegetable realm, Amy Goldman has done it again to expose crops in a different light. This time, her medium is black and white.
For “Heirloom Harvest: Modern Daguerreotypes of Historic Garden Treasures,” Goldman collaborated with photographer Jerry Spagnoli to publish a large-format edition filled with the most delectable daguerreotypes imaginable. Each haunting photo drips with lip-smacking succulence. You can almost taste the subjects set before the camera.
The daguerreotypes are evocatively fresh and educational, chronicling the splendor of heirloom crops at the Rhinebeck, New York, farm that Goldman shares with husband Cary Fowler. But the text is equally riveting. This is the story of a love affair on many levels.
Goldman describes her early days on the farm, when she first bought the Abraham Traver house and its 210 acres in 1988. With a multitude of issues, it wasn’t the type of house that would attract most young homeowners. “But the house had a presence,” Goldman recalled in a recent interview. “It had a quirkiness that appealed on a subliminal level; there was something irresistible about the place.” Then she paused to divulge the secret ingredient, “and…I love a challenge.”
The challenge extended beyond the complete overhaul that the house required from wiring to roofing. The romance also included the land. Few vestiges of the original 18th Century farm remained at the time of purchase, but some of the trees still stood. And Goldman begins her tale of the farm with descriptions of the trees in residence—stately old arboreal fixtures that survived century after century. Unfortunately, some were lost in an October snowstorm that swept the property before they bought the house, and the wrenching storm-torn vestiges of tree victims were still visible when they moved in. But Amy Goldman and her then-husband Larry Arno set about to steward what remained.
When their daughter, Sara, was born in 1992, she grew up with a strong foundation of land stewardship and a rare appreciation for the full panoply of plants—ranging from her mother’s plentiful melon crops to the several-century-old trees in residence. The loss of a shagbark hickory on the farm last winter hit Sara like the passing of a dear friend.
Amy Goldman also learned her respect for vegetables and fruits early in life. Originally, her father was a New York City grocer before he became a real estate investor. So she sidestepped the whole canned food preoccupation that overtook the country in the 1960s and 1970s and learned the value, beauty and taste of fresh produce. When she bought the farm, a vegetable garden was an early project.
Good things resulted. Following a friend’s suggestion, she began competing at the Dutchess County Fair and took home so many ribbons that her reputation in the field spread far beyond the fairgrounds. Not only did competition lead to expanded gardens, but it also reaffirmed her fascination with handsome and tasty food. Heirloom vegetables fulfilled both of those descriptions. By growing heirloom varieties, she could wow the neighborhood while also making meals more delectable for her family. Plus, she could preserve a taste sensation that might otherwise slip away. It wasn’t long before Goldman became involved with the Seed Savers Exchange based in Iowa, eventually spending 10 years on their Board of Directors. Meanwhile, she was working on books to celebrate the melons, squashes and tomatoes that she grew on the farm.
The books were what really changed the game for vegetables. Suddenly, fresh food had status. People began to recognize melons in the produce section that they previously greeted with suspicion. The reaction came as a welcome surprise for Goldman.
“When you show people your heart, it’s contagious,” she realized.
That was the mindframe when a high school friend linked Goldman together with Spagnoli. His venue was primarily studio-based and definitely city-centric when Goldman began sending vegetables into the Big Apple 15 years ago.
“I sent the best looking produce from my garden to Jerry,” Goldman recalls.
For 15 years, he faithfully documented the deliveries from her garden in the daguerreotype format without a specific goal in mind. Meanwhile, Spagnoli was getting an education. When he started working with the vegetables, his interaction with fresh Swiss chard was minimal. During the photography process, not only were his eyes opened to the beauty of the food on his plate, but he was awakened to the taste sensation when food is fresh. After photographing food, the produce often appeared on the lunch menu.
Goldman was also receiving an education in graphics. Holding a daguerreotype plate in her hands was certainly a sensation beyond most gardeners’ scope of reality.
“Jerry is like an alchemist in his studio,” Goldman noted. “The images just float in time and space.”
But she also began to recognize the beauty of imperfection. “After 10 years involved with competitive vegetable gardening, I would never consider showing a fruit that wasn’t perfect.”
On the other hand, Spagnoli’s discipline depicted nature, warts and all. The transience of vegetables was part of the story. Less-than-perfect fruit was beautiful. It was an awakening worth sharing.
Amy Goldman cannot really remember the exact moment when the project evolved into a book. Meanwhile, a love affair was blossoming between Goldman and Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and force behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The two were married in 2012. With two seed-centric environmentalists in residence at the Rhinebeck farm, documenting the produce came to the fore.
In 2012, the book took on a life of its own. “That’s when we set about telling the story more deliberately,” Goldman recalls, and Spagnoli began coming to the farm on a regular basis to document the landscape and animals. Opening up the scope of the format beyond close-up photography resulted in a wonderful chemistry between a very primitive method of visual documentation and a landscape with a past that is forever evolving.
From the telling of the tale to design of the book and the printing process, “Heirloom Harvest” was accomplished with worshipful devotion to the arts on all levels. The newly published result will again open our eyes to the bond between land and what it can yield. Every fruit and vegetable has innate glory; every piece of land has a story to tell; every parcel has the potential of creating its own crops. All it takes is reverence and a hoe.