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Heirloom Food: Good for You and the World

It was ten years ago when I first noticed the word “heirloom” being used to describe a crate of tomatoes at my local farmer’s market. There was a crowd of people surrounding the crate and a line had formed behind it. Being a sucker for any type of advertising, I had to see what the hubbub was about. So I waited patiently in the slow-moving line, similar to the one I waited on years before to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. 

Half expecting the tomatoes to be encased in bulletproof glass, cordoned off with velvet ropes, and guarded by an armed security detail, I was underwhelmed by the reality of what I saw. Instead of a work of art, the tomatoes were misshapen bulbs, with purple or green mixed in with the red and orange hues, and undeniably ugly. But believing that there must be more to these tomatoes than meets the eye—and not wanting to feel as if I wasted fifteen minutes of my precious lunch hour waiting in line for nothing—I grabbed the most offending tomato in the crate and bought it. 

It turned out that it was the most delicious tomato I ever had. And in my search for heirloom tomatoes every week at the farmers market since then, I discovered a bounty of other fruits and vegetables that share the same wonderful adjective. 

Hurray for Heirloom and Heritage
The term “heirloom” refers to produce whose lineage can be traced back at least fifty years. These crops are grown from heirloom seeds that are open-pollinated, which means they are only aided by wind, rain, or pollinating insects. European immigrants most likely brought the original seeds to America and passed them on from generation to generation in small farms and backyard gardens. Over time, the crops that grew from these seeds were cultivated to flourish in a particular region. As a result, the crops became well suited for that particular climate, tolerant of local stresses, and usually grown organically.

While heirloom is used to describe produce, the term heritage is used to describe livestock. Heritage livestock refer to breeds raised by farmers before the drastic reduction of breed variety due to industrial agriculture. These animals (pigs, cattle, chickens, goats, and sheep) are generally better adapted to withstand disease and survive in harsh environmental conditions. They are also better suited to living on pasture and are usually raised on a sustainable or organic farm. 

Diversity Lives On
Old seeds and breeds aren’t just unique, they’re an important part of ecologic diversity. Throughout the decades, agriculture has become much more industrialized, with farmers cross-breeding plants. These hybrids contain only certain crop varieties, namely, the ones that produced high returns. Conventional farming has also relied on genetically modified hybrids whose seeds are useless because they can’t be saved to use the next year. As a result, thousands of crop varieties and the practice of seed saving have been lost. 

Certain breeds of livestock were also chosen for their ability to provide for a growing population. Within the last fifteen years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide. An additional 1,500 breeds are at risk of becoming extinct. 

Why “Go Heirloom” or “Go Heritage”?
Heirloom produce and heritage meat or poultry are superior in taste and quality, which is why many star-studded restaurants turn to all things “H.” And where the chefs go, the foodies will follow. Despite smaller yields and limited growing seasons, sales have increased. And just as the term “organic” has begun to lose its cache, “heirloom” and “heritage” have taken its place. 

The cost of heirloom produce and heritage meat and poultry is higher than anything grown or raised conventionally because of the smaller yields and limited seasons. Most of all, anything heirloom or heritage must be air-shipped to areas where there is a demand for them. The best bet to keeping costs low for any consumer is to buy these products at farmers markets because everything is sold locally and in season. 

Going heirloom and/or heritage is not simply a gesture in the pursuit of gastronomic pleasure. It promotes agricultural diversity, biodiversity, and sustainability. So while you are out shopping for foods to make your taste buds tingle, you can also be a responsible human being. 

What to Buy?
Tomatoes may be the most famous heirloom crop, but they are certainly not alone. There are heirloom potatoes, squash, apples, pears, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, and beans to name a few. The most popular heritage livestock is probably the Black turkey and is mostly raised and sold around Thanksgiving. But you can also buy various breeds of cattle, chicken, rabbit, and lamb, which are available year round at farmers markets. You can also buy them online at Web sites such as Local Harvest

For the small farmer or home gardener, heirloom seeds can be bought for vegetables as well as herbs and flowers. Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit, member supported organization based in Iowa dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds, sells over 500 varieties of vegetables. 

For a complete list (as of December 2008, that is) of heirloom produce and heritage meat and poultry, check out Slow Food USA. Their list is broken down into nine regions and helps you figure out what foods you should be looking out for at your local farmers market or restaurants. Slow Food USA has compiled the list, known as the U.S. Ark of Taste, to make sure heirloom and heritage foods are still eaten and to ensure that the dual goals of biodiversity and sustainability are met on the plate. 

So go heirloom. Go heritage. Because doing so means being a responsible inhabitant of this planet. And that great taste with every delicious bite of an American plum sorbet or Randall beef rib eye steak? Consider it a consequence of your altruistic nature.