Oral History Project Preserves Black and Indigenous Food Traditions

The Heirloom Gardens Project records the stories of elders and honors both long-held expertise and culturally meaningful foods

June 04, 2024 | Source: CIVIL EATS | by Liz Susman Karp

Traveling through Appalachia, Tessa Desmond and her team kept hearing the seed stories. As interviewers with the Heirloom Gardens Oral History Project (HGP), they spent more than two months talking to home gardeners, cooks, farmers and local historians, learning about seeds that had become part of family lore: the fistful of crowder peas discovered in a late grandmother’s bible, a place of importance to her, or the rare collard greens seeds now named Nellie Taylor collards, which were offered by her son-in law, who plucked them from the freezer where they had been stored in a plastic bag for 30 years since her passing.

He had overheard Desmond discussing seeds with his neighbor. “People have hung on to seeds even when they aren’t actively planting and tending them,” says Desmond. “They hold memories and are cherished as story and timekeeping objects.”

Agriculture has been a way of life and a source of meaning and pride for Black and Indigenous people for centuries, shaping rituals, beliefs, and traditions. Slavery and colonialism exploited their agricultural knowledge and shattered their lives. The heirloom gardens project, a collaboration between Princeton University, Spelman College’s Food Studies program, and Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, aims to memorialize their long-held expertise and culturally meaningful foods.

For two years, students and faculty are collecting the oral histories of community members in the southeastern United States and Appalachia who are preserving their agricultural, culinary, and medicinal traditions. Oral history is a natural vehicle for these stories. For centuries, most Black Americans were denied learning to read or write, and passed information through the spoken word instead.