Horseradish and Hops on Hamilton's Campus

L-R: Austin Deyo '08, Frank Sciacca , Brendan O'Malley '08 in the Heritage Garden
L-R: Austin Deyo '08, Frank Sciacca , Brendan O'Malley '08 in the Heritage Garden
"No, no that's the horseradish." "Just leave the mint out for now. There's something else that goes there." "I have some more seeds for you, and Janet is bringing the lemon balm." Directions, suggestions and observations emanated from the 1812 Heritage Garden as students began planting the first rows of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs on a recent sunny May afternoon. The garden is one of the centerpieces of this spring's "Food for Thought: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Food" course taught by Professor of Biology David Gapp and Associate Professor of Russian Frank Sciacca.

An interdisciplinary exploration of food, the course addressed why we eat what we eat, where our food comes from, the politics of food, the cultural history of cookbooks, diet fads, and food and disease. The approximately 40-foot by 50-foot garden mirrors a typical 19th century kitchen. As part of the course, each student selected a crop to research that would have been grown in central New York in the 1800s. Students were also charged with creating a detailed wiki entry about the crops which are now accessible at the course's Web site.

Junior Alexandra Schoen demonstrated a technique adapted from 19th century local Native Americans as she planted corn. She compressed dirt in a mound at the top of which she was planted four corn kernels. She explained that once the corn was given a six-inch head start, squash seeds would be planted at the base of the mound. The squash tendrils would then be able to climb and be supported by the corn plants.

Other students used tape measures to carefully prepare rows for planting beans, potatoes and peas. Senior Sean Conway created eight-foot support structures with tall poles on which hops will grow and may possibly be used for the creation of a bicentennial beer in the future. Conway lamented that he would not be on campus to see the fruits of his labor.

The garden will be tended this summer by junior Melissa Balding who, with Levitt Center funding, will also create materials and programming so that local student groups in the area can visit the garden and benefit from the class' research. Subsequent groups of Hamilton students will continue to develop the garden for the 2012 bicentennial celebration.

In preparing for the garden, Sciacca searched extensively to find varietal heirloom seeds and plants. The Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.; the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants in Monticello, Va.; Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass.; and Seed Savers Exchange were among the primary sources. "I was surprised to discover the extent of varietals available in the 19th century in this part of the country. Most of the seeds came from Europe up until the Shakers got into the business of selling seeds," said Gapp. 

Preparing to plant beets and rutabagas, class member and Hamilton employee Yvonne Schick commented that the planting process was "a lot more work than I anticipated." Senior Jonathan Zellner, who researched onions, chives, garlic and leeks, agreed. Schick commented that, as a result of what she had learned in class, she had become a vegetarian and was refraining from fast food whenever possible. Both agreed that they had learned useful lessons about the decisions we make when we eat and how our choices are influenced by our culture, history and biology.

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