A calendar for the ages

With its precise illustrations from the 1800s Album Benary, it deserves more than a year.

We have grown accustomed to - no, make that attached to - the calendar on the wall of our kitchen that reproduces the vintage drawings from something called Album Benary, an archive so foreign to us that we have long assumed (wrongly) it was of Italian extraction.

It's labeled the Farmer's Market 2010 calendar, which isn't quite its actual focus: the vegetable illustrations, as carefully detailed as Audubon prints, date from 1876, when they were made by the noted seed collector and breeder Ernst Benary, a German, it turns out.

The 2010 Farmer's Market calendar is filled with carefully detailed illustrations by seed collector and breeder Ernst Benary. Alas, there will be no such monthly anticipation for 2011.

Atop each month, on ivory-colored stock, are depictions, for instance, of varieties of luminous, silken onions that might be (if inflated) antique hot-air ballons; or dusky cabbages whose folds have an almost feminine delicacy; or snowy white carrots, their tops strikingly green.

The calendar was a gift from our son, who purchased it from the USDA's National Agricultural Library. Its rare-book special collections in Beltsville, Md., include an original (and rather hefty, according to librarian Ellen Mann) album of Benary's varieties, including the strain of peas Gregor Mendel used in his seminal genetics experiments.

The resulting chromolithographs are so enchanting and quirky and alternately stolid (in root vegetable months) and fanciful (in the frilly month of peas) that the calendar has come to affect how my wife and I define the passage of time: "Look, dear, it's just four days until knobby melon month."

But this Christmas, there was no 2011. We were told, and it appears to be true, that Cavallini & Co., the San Francisco calendar maker that has the rights to the images, isn't doing an Album Benary edition this year.

I called Felicia Tyler, another librarian at the National Agricultural Library. Yes, she said, after digging around, there would be no 2011, although there were some pleasant garden calendars and others with colorful seed packets.

In a panic, our son had made a substitution himself. He gave us a vintage poster from 1917 issued by the Committee of Public Safety, a branch of the U.S. Department of Food Supply operating out of South Penn Square next to Philadelphia's own City Hall.

Its message could have been ripped from the pages of one of the latest Michael Pollan advisories. "Food," it announces: "Buy it with thought, cook it with care, serve just enough, save what will keep, eat what would spoil, home-grown is best."

Those are, of course, words to live by - now as then. And reading them, I was feeling nostalgic for what Mark Kurlansky calls "food of a younger land" in his book about the final days of regional, peculiar, and ingenious home cookery during the Depression years before interstate highways and McDonald's sped up the homogenization of what all-America eats.

But nostaglia can be a false mirror. The good old days of national solidarity, of posters urging civilians- as another one did - to eat more oats and vegetables, fish, and poultry (and less meat, sugar, and fats), were fueled by the imperative to send calories to the front where young soldiers were being chewed up; Americans and Germans both, among others.

And it was epidemic hunger - not just homespun foodways - that was the subtext of the Depression, though as Ted Gup writes in A Secret Gift, an admirable understanding also obtained: The "prevailing creed was self-discipline," he notes, "not self-indulgence."

It would be in the time of carnage and economic collapse in Germany after World War I that Ernst Benary's descendants switched from a focus on flowers to breeding more practical and marketable vegetable seeds.

Then, even as that shift was in progress, according to Curio, a website about curiosities, the rise of the Nazis made life even more difficult for the family Benary. Ernst, born Jewish, had converted to Protestantism shortly before he married, but his ancestry made his business the target of anti-Semitic persecution, forcing it to move from its Erfurt headquarters in East Germany, to West Germany where it continues - breeding flowers again - to this day.

So for now we have decided it shall remain 2010 a while longer on our kitchen wall, the Benary calendar flipped to March, a motley parade of beets marking time there - or maybe just gently and quite beautifully defying it.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols

at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.


For more information on the National Agricultural Library call 301-504-5755 or go to www.nal.usda.gov