Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey To Save Our Seeds and Stories | LPB
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Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey To Save Our Seeds and Stories »»»

For nearly four decades, John Coykendall’s passion has been preserving the farm heritage – the seeds and stories - of a small, farming culture in Southeastern Louisiana and this work is the subject of a new documentary from Louisiana Public Broadcasting.

The documentary - which is already gaining a lot of buzz nationally ahead of its air date - is produced and written by LPB's Christina Melton. Melton introduces us to the life-story of Master Gardner, heirloom seed saver, and classically trained artist, John Coykendall.

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John Coykendall is a renowned heirloom seed saver, a classically trained artist, and Master Gardener at Blackberry Farm, one of America’s top resorts. Since 1973, he has made an annual pilgrimage to Louisiana, where he has recorded the oral histories, growing techniques, recipes and folktales of Louisiana farmers and backyard gardeners in more than 80 beautifully illustrated journals. He has saved and safeguarded rare varieties of the crops they once grew, and handed them back to the communities where they came from. "Seeds carry with them more than the potential to sustain people as food, they are living history of the people who cared and tended to them and cultivated them and passed them down. I feel 100-percent total obligation, I am the caretaker," believes Coykendall. "This is what we’re working to save, this history, the heritage, the way of life, the way of farming, way of cuisine, everything to do needs to be preserved while its still here to be preserved."

A Tennessee native, the 73-year-old Coykendall is a true Renaissance man and a celebrity in a growing movement that places a premium on farm-to-table cuisine and locally sourced, organic and heirloom food. He is a classically trained artist, who studied at the Ringling College of Art and Design and worked as an instructor at the the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and he is well-known for his sketches of the pastoral landscape in which he works.

For nearly 20 years, he has been the Master Gardner at one of America’s most celebrated destination resorts, Blackberry Farm, in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. The 4,200 acre resort, working farm and culinary mecca has been heralded by the world’s most prestigious magazines, including Travel and Leisure, Bon Appetit, Forbes, Vogue, Town & Country, Southern Living, and Garden & Gun among many others. At Blackberry Farm, John cultivates the property’s seven acres of farm land that supply the resort’s award winning restaurants with fresh from the ground, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables.

In his role at Blackberry Farm, he has also become one of the nation’s most important seed savers - locating, preserving and sharing nearly extinct vegetable varieties, once abundant in America and particularly in the South. It is the work of a seasoned detective. And while his efforts take him around the world searching for seeds and beans and the cultural knowledge of how to grow them, what inspires him most is his annual pilgrimage to a small Louisiana community he stumbled upon 40 years ago. Drawn to the Washington Parish area as a college student in the early 1970s, John forged relationships with local farmers in the community, where over the years he has served as a dedicated and beloved volunteer at the Washington Parish Free Fair and has painstakingly recorded notes, documented stories and created beautiful sketches in volumes of moleskin notebooks detailing an agricultural way of life that is at risk of loss across our nation.

"That term renaissance man is often overused, and way too often applied, but in this case it is completely appropriate to think of John Coykendall in that way, " says John T. Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. "John's belief in seed saving and the possibilities of seed saving has inspired a whole generation of chefs. One of the things that is interesting about John's relationship to Franklinton and Washington Parish is that he's an outsider, like we are stepping into his world by way of John's journals, and often times, when you're an outsider, you see things more clearly and you appreciate what's in the midst of these people whom you've joined and you turn a mirror on their experiences and say look at this - this is valuable, this is important. It's beautiful."

Coykendall's work inspires us to reconnect with the land, with the seeds and wisdom that our ancestors passed on to us, to grab hold and pass that legacy on to future generations - while there is still time. "Today, as we reach back out of this crazy world we live in, with so much activity where we are so busy,” says friend Chef John Folse, “there is a deep desire within all of us to know from where we came from. John Coykendall laid it all out for us here in these journals."

The documentary, "Deeply Rooted" was produced by independent producer Christina Melton for Louisiana Public Broadcasting, and features images by local photographer Sarah Hackenberg and an original music score by Mike Esneault.

Enjoy a holiday recipe from Beulah Mae Lang, wife of Seldon Lang, one of John's biggest inspirations. Compliments of their daughter Bob Ann Breland.

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Beulah Mae Lang’s Biscuits recorded by daughter Bob Anne Breland

Mama always made biscuits with self-rising flour. She had a wooden dough bowl that she used for years. She sifted flour into the dough bowl (no measuring except by eye) and then made a well in the center. In the well she placed a “hand full” of shortening (like Crisco) then added her cup of starter from the refrigerator. She added a little milk as needed as she mixed the biscuits.

Here is where her biscuits were different. Each time she made biscuits, she pinched off a little of the dough, put it in a cup and covered it with milk. When next she made biscuits, this was her starter. Since she made biscuits often, her starter never went bad.

She used her right hand to “squeeze” the shortening, starter and milk together, mixing in a little of the flour as she continued to mix. When it all came together, she would form it up and start pinching off bits of dough big enough for a biscuit. She had her cast iron “baker” greased with shortening and ready. After placing the biscuits in a circle, with one in the center, she put them into a hot oven to bake.

She told me to put them in the oven immediately so they would not “coddle” and bake at about 500 degrees until brown. Although I have followed her directions over the years and watched her many times, mine never looked like hers nor tasted as good.

Compliments of Bob Ann Breland
Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey To Save Our Seeds and Stories

Mama’s Butter Beans

Most southern cooks prepare peas and butter beans the same way, adding either bacon or pork what Mama called “fried meat grease”. This was from grease saved after frying meat of some sort, usually bacon.

Mama prepared field peas this way, but she had a different method for butter beans, learned from her mother-in-law.

After putting the immature speckled butter beans on to cook in water (Daddy didn’t like them after they had matured and were speckled) she added real butter to the beans and cooked them with salt and pepper. About the time they were cooked to the creamy stage, she added milk.

They were always served with biscuits, not cornbread.

Compliments of Bob Ann Breland
Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey To Save Our Seeds and Stories

Sweet Potato Pie

This is originally a family recipe that Beulah Mae got from her aunt, the late Mary Ethel Thames. This recipe will be a hit with even those who do not like sweet potato pie. Makes one pie.

1 stick margarine
1 cup cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
2 eggs
1 small can evaporated milk
1 cup sugar
3 Tbsp. flour
Orange or other extract to taste

Mix all together and pour into unbaked pie shell. The mixture will be very thin. Bake at 375 degrees for approximately 30 to 40 minutes – until firm in center.

To prevent spilling, I set my pie pan on pulled out oven rack and then pour the mixture into the crust. Gently push the rack back in place and bake.

Compliments of Bob Ann Breland
Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey To Save Our Seeds and Stories

Old Fashioned Banana Pudding

When Mama made banana pudding it wasn’t always banana. She had a habit of using whatever she had on hand. Sometimes it was canned peaches and sometimes canned pineapple. One thing for sure, it was always good. She used a basic cream recipe like the following:

½ cup sugar
2 heaping Tbsps. Flour
3 egg yolks
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup whole milk
½ stick butter

Mix sugar and flour; add egg yolks, using a little of the milk to blend well. Add remaining milk and butter ; cook on medium heat stirring constantly until mixture thickens to desired consistency. For pudding, not too thick.

Layer the pudding mixture with vanilla wafers and bananas (or whatever fruit you desire. Drain canned peaches or pineapple well before layering.)

Beat the leftover egg whites to make meringue for the top of the pudding. After adding to top of pudding, put in hot oven and let the meringue brown. Delicious!

Or you can use the leftover egg whites for something else and top with whipped topping.

Compliments of Bob Ann Breland
Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey To Save Our Seeds and Stories

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DEEPLY ROOTED: John Coykendall’s Journey to Save Our Seeds and Stories
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