The Case For Heirloom Produce

When I was growing up in the 1980s, vegetables came wrapped in plastic and city kids like me thought farmers were people mainly encountered in books for preschoolers, standing in front of red barns helpfully teaching them how to spell c-o-w. Then the foodie revolution arrived, perhaps most easily dated to the 1993 debut of the Food Network or the 2000 release of the USDA’s Organic Standards, and everything changed. Suddenly, tomatoes that looked and tasted like Styrofoam were out and tomatoes that looked and tasted like tomatoes were in.

I remember it like it was yesterday: the card table at the farmers’ market that displayed tomatoes with names like Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine, Blondkopfchen, Hungarian Heart, Isis Candy, Mamie Brown’s Pink, Nebraska Wedding, and Trucker’s Favorite Pink. I was happy to pay outrageous prices, because these weren’t just tomatoes; these tasted like hot afternoons in the shade.

It was fun, too, to see the seed savers themselves come out of hiding. For decades, their favorite tomatoes had been degraded as old-fashioned, unproductive pest magnets. They had secretly nurtured them nonetheless.

In Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451, the government is dedicated to burning all the books, but a band of rebels, hiding like hobos in the shadows, preserve copies of classics as best they can. I’m not saying the seed savers were like the heroes in that terrifying dystopia — but in a way, they really were.

Tasting Indigenous Cultures

I’m now mature enough to recognize that my first experiences with heirlooms were mainly motivated by hedonism: the sweetness of a Black Krim, the funny cassis-and-lemon undercurrent in a Matt’s Wild. Over the years, though, my respect for what we call heirlooms has continued to grow as I’ve begun to better understand their role in Native American traditions.

Seed saving is a huge part of indigenous cultures — and I had no idea until I met some of the folks working with tribes to preserve heirloom crops, such as corn, squash, and beans.

Diane Wilson directs Dream of Wild Health, an organization that raises indigenous foods and traditional medicinal garden plants for Native Americans in the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area. Wilson operates a small-urban community garden, where Native youths and families can learn gardening, as well as a 10-acre farm in a nearby suburb. What amazes me about Wilson’s work is the efforts she and her organization must exert to keep…

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