Food & Drink: Table Talk with Shannie McCabe
With a love of gardens stemming from childhood, this writer and educator is on a mission to inspire others with the same passion.
Where does your interest in farming come from?
I’m from Block Island, a 3-by-7 mile island off the Rhode Island coast. I grew up picking basil and tomatoes on a historic farm that has been owned and operated by the same family for 300 years. My great aunt was a farmer and my great grandmother was a competitive floral designer (she came in 6th in the country); farming and florals are in my blood. Then, in college, I studied horticulture and sustainable agriculture.
What’s your favorite food memory?
Block Island is a tourist town, so every summer, we were flooded with people from other countries. I was fascinated to learn about their food cultures and agriculture traditions.
What led you to education and writing about heirloom seeds and farming?
After college, I managed the historic farm on Block Island and then worked on other organic produce and flower farms. I was always in the market for interesting and colorful varieties to grow and sell, which led me to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I appreciated that they focused on the cultural and historical significance of the varieties, not just instructions for growing.
Describe your roles.
For Baker Creek, I’ve been the farm manager and a grower, written articles, made video content, spoken at conventions, worked in their test kitchen and even traveled to places like the Peruvian Amazon and the Netherlands in search of heirloom seeds. My biggest role at Baker Creek is as their primary seed catalog writer. I also contribute to Edible Orlando magazine and own a small plant and seed business called Plant Sages with my husband.
What’s it like to be a woman in this field?
In college, horticulture was more of a “boys club,” but I’ve been seeing that change. At Baker Creek, I’ve always felt that I have had an equal seat at the table. I believe that more women and more diverse ethnic representation fosters creativity and innovation.
Who has been your greatest professional influence?
Gertrude Jeykll [famed British horticulturist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries].
Do you like to cook?
I love it. I’ve been cooking mostly Indian food lately.
What’s your favorite flavor to work with?
Briny and salty.
What’s an underappreciated plant or food that you think people need to know about?
People don’t realize that carrots can be a rainbow of colors and quite versatile in cooking. It’s also incredibly satisfying to see a child pull one out of the ground and make the connection between plants and their food. My current obsession, though, is the butterfly pea flower, which grows exceptionally well in Central Florida. It’s used to make flavorful, bright blue tea and can dye food blue.
What’s always in your fridge?
Pickles, hot sauce, sauerkraut made with cabbage from my garden; there’s always some homemade, lacto-fermented surprise in there.
What do you do on your day off?
Garden. I must have my hands in the dirt.
Do you have any gardening tips?
Thousands! You can find many of my gardening tips and videos on my PlantSages.com website and on the Baker Creek YouTube channel RareSeeds.
What’s your favorite crop to work with?
I love heirloom tomatoes and dinner plate dahlias. They’re both very difficult to grow, especially in Florida, but completely worth the effort.
Any rules to live by?
I’m an advocate for non-violence, and I think peace should be chosen over everything else.
Where do you hope to be in five years?
I’d like to write another children’s book. I wrote one for Baker Creek when I first started, but I’d like to do another one that is narrative-based. My husband and I would like to have more children and eventually own a farm.
Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate
Coffee or tea? Tea
Pizza or pasta? Pizza
Bagel or biscuit? Bagel
Ice cream or cookies? Ice cream
The Great British Baking Show or Chopped? The Great British Baking Show
Winter or summer? Winter—in Florida!