Q&A: William Woys Weaver

A food historian, culinary scribe and gardener extraordinaire.

William Woys WeaverThese days, William Woys Weaver’s schedule is as bountiful as any meal he hosts or coordinates. For the first time, the Devon-based food historian, culinary author, editor and educator is offering hands-on seasonal heirloom gardening workshops in the kitchen garden at Roughwood, his circa-1805 home. He’s also partnering with Havertown’s Janet Chrzan, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, to launch the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism at Drexel University, where he’s an adjunct professor. In September, Weaver will lecture at Monticello in Virginia. And October marks the debut of his 15th book, Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History. He also maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection of 4,000 heirloom food plants for worldwide distribution.

MLT: Where did you get your green thumb?
I’m related to William Darlington, the pioneering botanist in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and also a direct descendant of Longwood’s Pierces and William Brinton, the founder of scenic Birmingham Township, Chester County.

MLT: What about your grandfather, H. Ralph Weaver?
I grew up on his knee and learned what no one else did. I learned to read plants and to be in touch with nature. I would call him a botanist, but he was an amateur. I lived in West Chester with him as a child. When he died (in 1956), we found seeds in his freezer. They were in baby food jars—all meticulously labeled. My grandmother didn’t know what was there; it was his world. I brought the collection back from the dead—though, in the beginning, I killed a lot of rare things. I was a beginner.

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MLT: Lots of people are digging up their yards, planting and growing their own vegetables. What’s happening?
There will come a time soon where we graduate to the next level of dinner parties, where you serve what you’ve grown. It’s an evolution, but also a slow return to the existence of a first-class garden as a status symbol. There was a day when dinner entertainment was the only entertainment, and a kitchen garden was an opportunity for one-upmanship—a chance to say, “I have the best peas!” After 1850, we saw the decline in kitchen gardens, and flower gardens took over.

MLT: Is the time ripe for a regional food center?
In Philadelphia, we have such an abundance of riches, we’re blinded. We all seem really good at ignoring diamonds in our own backyard. When I lecture in Philadelphia, 40 people attend, but I’ll go to Chicago and 800 are there. We have distinctive cooking here because of the Quaker-English dairy culture and also the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. I’ve already identified and documented 1,600 dishes, most totally unknown because they evolved from home cooking. It’s going to be a list well over 3,000.

MLT: How did the first three classes go at Roughwood?
They were the guinea pigs, but all were happy. We’re repeating the cycle Aug. 21, and Oct. 2 and 16.

MLT: Is sharing a leap of faith?
At first, I thought, “This will be like sharing my toothbrush with the world,” and I didn’t want the invasiveness. Then, I said, “Stop. I’m a good teacher. I want to share my experiences and use this as a teaching garden.”

MLT: How much prompting did it take?
[Co-instructor] David [Siller] had urged me to teach out of the garden, but he wasn’t the first. My former [literary] agent, [Penn Valley’s] Blanche Schlessinger (founder of Encore Books), told me she was tired of hearing me complain about the money the garden was costing ($2,400 alone each winter to heat the greenhouse)—that I could teach classes there to compensate. She’s also the one who first convinced me to do an heirloom vegetable garden. She’s been an influence and deserves credit.

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MLT: With the food center, how will you represent all regions of the state?
To promote the state’s foods and producers, we have developed a map of five culinary regions of Pennsylvania—no other state has this many. There’s a lot of Native American stuff, but people don’t know about it. We have riches; we have enough to talk about it. An example of the diaspora from Pennsylvania is scrapple. It’s a food here, but it has gone all over. Pretzels began here. We need a center that codifies all of this. It’s not a matter of whether you want to eat muskrat scrapple or not, it’s what other people are eating. And we need a center where we can teach about these foods and anchor them to our culture. We can have fundraisers in each of the identified food regions, workshops on pepper pot, or others dedicated to Eliza Leslie, a famous early-Philadelphia cookbook writer.
To learn more, e-mail w3food@aol.com.

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