When you sit down to dinner with your family, a dish may circulate that sparks discussion. Not about the food, but about the vessel: an antique platter passed down through generations, carefully stored and brought out on special occasions. It often comes with a story about where the original owner got it, or how it has traveled to be in your hands.
What if the food on your table carried an equally distinctive heritage? In some cases, it does.
Most of us are only a few generations removed from agrarian roots. Many of our ancestors came to America from abroad, carrying their valuable histories with them―including seeds of the very food that nourished their families, tucked under hat bands or sewn into the linings of coats.
Today we call these seeds heirlooms. You may have seen the term in seed catalogs, at farmers’ markets, in produce aisles or on restaurant menus, but what does it truly mean? How does it reflect our food culture?
Heirlooms are vegetables or fruits that come to us from another time, sprouted from seeds that have continued to adapt to each new climate, just as their human carriers did. “Heirlooms are true survivors,” wrote entrepreneur Kenny Ausubel, founder of Seeds of Change, a seed company aimed at preserving old varieties. When immigrants introduced their heritage seed varieties here in the New World, they added that lineage to our gene pool as well as a particular history and character to America’s horticultural landscape.
Growing Our Heritage
A common definition for today’s heirloom seed is one that has been passed down from generation to generation. This means that the seed is at least a half-century old (many are much more ancient) and is being singled out for preservation because of some danger of extinction.
Today, a vast majority of our vegetable heritage has been lost or discarded through a combination of neglect, commercial seed company consolidation and changing lifestyles. As our country has developed, most of us have lost our roots in agriculture. In the course of the 20th century, farming as an occupation went from 38 percent in 1900 to less than 1 percent today.
As our farm population dwindled, so did biological diversity. In a study of the U.S. Department of Agriculture listings of 75 vegetable and fruit species being grown on farms between 1903 and 1983, the number of varieties had shrunk by 93 percent. As farms got larger and seed sources were concentrated into fewer hands, heirloom varieties were replaced by industrially suited hybrids. Hybrids are created by cross-pollinating plants to uncover more desirable traits, such as size uniformity for shipping or a longer shelf-life for retailing. More recently, hybridization shifted from the field to the laboratory, a trend staunchly opposed on many fronts that has resulted in genetically modified varieties, many of which are now proprietary to their sellers.
As a result, the food of our ancestors is not widely available to us today. Counteracting these trends are committed small farmers, seed-saving activists and home gardeners determined to perpetuate and enjoy heirloom varieties.
Many preservationists who value heirlooms are driven by the desire to retain culturally significant foods. But perhaps the greatest driving factor to grow heirlooms comes from people who are eager for the flavors, aromas and uniqueness of the foods they remember from the past: the tangy sweetness of a vine-ripened heirloom tomato or delicate nuttiness of a unique potato.
The Cherokee Purple tomato holds just such allure. This wine-like, dusky tomato that can be readily found in nurseries as seeds or seedlings was not too many years ago an unknown treasure.
The seeds were received by tomato grower Craig LeHoullier of Raleigh, N.C.―unnamed with just a description―by fellow Seed Savers Exchange member J. D. Green of Tennessee in 1991. Green told the story of the seeds being shared by neighbors, who said it had been in their family for 100 years, originally received from the Cherokee people.
Cultivated, named and introduced to the seed trade by LeHoullier, it is now a staple for tomato lovers for its sweet, rich flavor. The reddish purple globes have green streaks across their shoulders, with the purple and green bleeding into the firm, solid flesh.
While many heirlooms come from the Mediterranean and the Near East, the Americas also hold centers of origin for entire genera of edible plants. Corn originated as maize in Mexico, where traditional farmers still allow its ancient ancestor teosinte to grow along the edges of the fields to breed hardiness into their many varieties. Beans, chiles and squash can be traced to the American Southwest and ancient Mesoamerica.
Many heirloom seeds and plants made roundabout trips with seafaring explorers before they reached the American table. That was the path of the potato, which originates in the Andes of Peru. Potatoes were carried in ships from South America to Europe and eventually brought to the U.S. But one modest fingerling potato can trace its lineage directly up the West Coast of the Americas.
Anna Cheeka’s Ozette is a thin-skinned tuber with yellow flesh that you would definitely notice in the potato bins: it is nearly covered in warts and knobby nodules. That might have kept it out of the supermarket, but it did not stop the Ozette Makah tribe on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula from keeping it in cultivation.
The Makah were first given the familiar tuber by Spanish explorers in the late 1700s who had sailed up from South America with their rooty booty. The Makah people have cultivated it for generations, and it is now listed on the U.S. Ark of Taste roster, a catalog created by Slow Food detailing more than 200 foods that are culturally significant and in danger of extinction. The rare, regional foods listed in the Ark help us celebrate these unique and nearly forgotten flavors. Recently, Anna Cheeka’s Ozette is making its way, in fits and starts, into seed catalogs and farmers’ markets. With its provenance and a unique, squash-like flavor, the Ozette potato has earned a spot in the hearts of heirloom gardeners.
Knowing, growing and eating heirlooms are helpful steps in their preservation, but there is a need to go deeper.
“The real concern from our perspective,” says Matthew Dillon, a founder of the Organic Seed Alliance of Port Townsend, Washington, “is that the skills of working with seed are being lost even more than the seed themselves. The [work of] farmers and gardeners who created the diversity we have today is no longer being regenerated―selecting varieties, seeing anomalies you like and saving it.”
You can be part of bucking that trend. To get started with your own heirloom garden, you need look no further than the plentiful, versatile bean. You will have no trouble finding heirloom beans, as the ease of saving and long shelf life have made them the stars of the heirloom world. New Englander John Withee was so enamored with beans that he grew a thousand heirloom varieties, which he willed upon his death to Seed Savers Exchange, the non-profit seed bank and heirloom advocacy organization based in Iowa.
The Cherokee Trail of Tears, a small black bean, has a heartbreaking provenance. It was a staple carried by the Cherokee people when they were driven from their land in the Southeast to Oklahoma by the U.S. Army during the bitter winter of 1838. Four thousand Cherokees died on the path, forever known as the Trail of Tears.
Greeks used fava beans as voting tokens. Native Americans string scarlet runner beans as jewelry. Names like Lazy Housewife, Dragon’s Tongue and Wren’s Egg speak to use, shape and color. Oregon Giant sports eight-inch, maroon-mottled pods. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan told one writer that his favorite seed name comes from a bean he was given by Southwest Indians that translates roughly as “little bitty kittie titties.”
These flavors and stories of our vegetable heritage have inspired gardeners and eaters, and their zeal has led to many preservation efforts. By seeking out and growing heirlooms, we can keep them available for future generations. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), which turned 30 last year, is supported by 13,000 members, many of whom list their own seeds for exchange in SSE’s thick, annual yearbook. Heirlooms have become a growing segment of seed sales for SSE and bioregional seed companies, like Oregon’s Territorial Seeds, that cater to home gardeners.
With the popularity of farmers’ markets has come the direct-marketing opportunity for farmers to try out smaller crops of unique, old varieties, so today shoppers will see “Heirloom!” on many of their signs. Buying from these farmers, and engaging them on the topic of heirlooms, is another path to heirloom cultivation.
When you sit down to your table with a dish of heirloom vegetables from your local farmer or your own garden, you will be nourished by a lot more than a healthy dose of vitamins; the bowl will overflow with history that is literally the stuff on which civilization was made.
Bill Thorness is the author of Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables for the Maritime Garden. (Skipstone Press, 2009).