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Edible Heirlooms

Cooks looking for new flavors are turning to seeds from the past.
To understand why heirloom vegetables are important, try the following experiment, suggested by Annie Copps of the Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust: buy a supermarket tomato, and throw it against a brick wall from 20 paces. "It won't even crack," Copps promises. "Or buy commercial strawberries. They look like strawberries, but they taste like nothing." Or at least nothing like heirloom strawberries, the small, sweet old-fashioned varieties grown by your grandparents--and their grandparents before them.

Oldways, an organization dedicated to preserving the environmentally sound traditions of world cultures, is grappling with what most people who cook, grow or eat produce already know: American vegetables are losing their personality. By way of consolation, they are easy to ship, resistant to disease, ripen at predictable times and look exactly the way the average consumer expects them to. The tomato that traveled for days to get to the store may be tasteless and spongy, but it is perfectly round and mostly red. 

It is also almost certainly a hybrid, made by breeding two different strains of tomato parents in the hopes of capturing the best qualities of both. Growers of hybrids are dependent on seed companies: if you save the seeds of a hybrid tomato and try to plant them, you will come up with a sort of
genetic mutant. But the hybrids are a dependable product. More and more, they are replacing the open-pollinated strains--those that pollinate themselves with the help of the wind and willing insects--that grew on American farms and in our backyards just 50 years ago. 

This loss of biodiversity has risks. "Look at what happened in Ireland," says Michael Ableman, a Santa Barbara market gardener who has traveled widely, studying farming techniques. "A million people starved because one single vulnerable potato was planted in their fields. In Peru, on the other hand, I saw fields the size of backyards with 30 varieties growing in them. That is security." 

If hybrids are about uniformity, open-pollinated plants are about particularity. Big-time commercial farming simply cannot deal with such temperamental seeds. That's why, as old farmers and gardeners die, their seeds are following them into extinction--with a few happy exceptions. 

In the past couple of years, if you listened carefully, you could hear the rumblings of an heirloom vegetable revival. Sometimes, you could even taste it, not just in your garden but in certain progressive restaurants. The year 1993 marked the start of Chefs Collaborative 2000, an offshoot of Oldways devoted to promoting what it terms sustainable food choices--which, among other things, means cooking with interesting and endangered seasonal vegetables grown locally. 

"I applaud what's happening," says Michael Romano, executive chef at the Union Square Cafe in New York City. "Heirlooms may be harder to grow, but they're worth the effort. I love it when a farmer brings me heirloom peach tomatoes, covered with fuzz, in unwieldy, weird shapes. Or quinoa. Or amaranth. Or cranberry beans. Or flowering kale." 

At Utah's Sundance resort, during the warm months, all the vegetables in chef Don Heidel's kitchen come from his own gardens. By combing through catalogs, his horticulturist was able to find beans, corn, tomatoes, lettuce and peppers that suit Utah's extreme hot and cold climate yet still fit into the menu, which Heidel describes as "Native American and early American food styles." 

In Houston, Dennis Boitnott, the chef at Benjy's, an innovative American café, says that he avoids "Frankenstein vegetables, because of all the genetic altering," and buys heirloom crops instead. His arugula comes from Houston farmer Camille Waters. "It's totally different from that bitter commercial stuff," he says. "Hers is peppery and fresh--and beautiful, with yellow flowers like you've never seen." 

ALMOST-WILD ARUGULA 

Waters, a greens fanatic who farms two inner-city market gardens in Houston, would never waste her time on less than spectacular arugula. "Mine is more or less wild," she says proudly. "I get the seeds for it from an Italian who's director of military entertainment in the Mediterranean. Once you taste it, you can't go back." 

For Waters, political correctness is not the main point. "I'm all for genetic diversity," she explains, "but taste and texture are even more important. Have you ever really tasted a subtle, nutty romaine?" 

Tracking down such lettuce gets Waters almost as excited as sowing her greens in squares--red, green, red, green, "like a checkerboard," she says. "I get almost every catalog there is. I happen to possess a pound of Rainbow chard seeds. I may be the only one. And, of course," she adds, "I am a Seed Saver." 

The Seed Savers Exchange, in Decorah, Iowa, got its start 21 years ago when Kent and Diane Whealy inherited a cache of mystery seeds from Diane's dying grandfather. The couple realized that if they did not keep the seeds going, no one would--and that their situation was far from unique. Since then Seed Savers has grown from a small stash in a cardboard box in a basement to a collection of more than 15,000 nearly extinct varieties, sent in by a worldwide network of fruit, flower and vegetable fanciers who, for whatever reasons, didn't want their particular seeds to become extinct. 

Since the Whealys and their staff can't grow out all 15,000 seeds to study the results--and to produce more seeds--they encourage exchange members to order and grow whatever seeds strike their fancy and to swap plants with one another. Mailmen across the country are carrying offers to exchange six Thomas Jefferson-era pole beans for three "strange cucumbers that grew in my uncle's yard." Such small-time trading is keeping countless vegetables alive. 

GRANNY'S PEPPER 

Thanks to a MacArthur "genius" grant, the Decorah seeds are now stored in a climate-controlled vault in a brand-new office built by Amish craftsmen, but donated seeds still arrive stuck to paper towels and accompanied with scribbled notes: "My gramma always grew this pepper. Thought you might want to try it." 

For Diane, the stories are as compelling as the seeds. "It's comforting to have knowledge of the past, and I feel almost desperate to capture it," she explains. "It's only the older people who have any clue." 

The files at Seed Savers are full of letters from exactly those people. Diane especially likes this note: "I am 93 years old. I have an old, old bean. . . . It is called Cut Short or Bird Egg. I have planted it for 75 years. My mother had this bean. My mother was born in 1867. My grandmother had this bean and she was born in 1841. I am planting Bird Egg beans again this spring 1995." 

And this one: "In September 1985, a single unusual-looking plant appeared in my yard, probably planted there by a bird as it flew overhead. I did not know what plant it was, but since it was attractive and mysterious, I allowed it to remain. I call it the Louisiana No Name cowpea." 

Today the Louisiana No Name cowpea--like Cossack alfalfa and Bloody Butcher corn--is stored in Decorah, waiting to be grown out. 

AN HEIRLOOM EMPIRE 

Gary Holleman of Bemidji, Minnesota, started an heirloom dried bean empire with a trip to Seed Savers. "The exchange gave me a hundred samples, and I went home and cooked them, five beans to a pot," he recalls. Holleman spent months evaluating the beans for good looks--each of his beans has at least two colors--and taste. "All heirloom beans are different," he says. "Some are creamy, some are granular, some are subtly sweet, some have bitter notes." 

So far, five bean varieties have made the cut, and it took Holleman's growers four years to produce the 100 pounds of seeds necessary to plant 10 acres. His company, Indian Harvest, began offering the beans for sale to restaurants three years ago and to consumers this year. "Chefs thought they looked so cool," Holleman reports. "They've also learned about the importance of heirlooms; 95 percent of the plants in our grandparents' gardens are lost forever." 

"Our entire agricultural history is disappearing in a single generation," agrees Michael Ableman. As a commercial farmer, he's in a bind. The heirloom varieties he likes to eat (and sustain) are sometimes too fragile to survive even a short trip to the local grocery store. "Strawberries, for instance--the smaller, traditional ones that taste so wonderful. We harvest them at a stage most people would consider ridiculous--when they're ready to eat! But they bruise if you even look at them," Ableman declares. 

Which is why he can't grow huge fields of those succulent berries--and why he thinks you should raise them in your own garden, where shipping is not an issue. "The joy of it is growing your own," he says. "And not just growing but eating." 

"Homegrown heirloom food is it," agrees Ann Cooper, executive chef at Vermont's Putney Inn. "We mess up when we demand food that's not in season. That's what we've done with tomatoes." Cooper prefers the Yellow Tiger and Yellow Teardrop tomatoes she buys from local farmers, along with native berries and crunchy, unwaxed old English cucumbers. 

"You should be able to tell it's an heirloom vegetable by closing your eyes," Cooper insists. "I do that in strawberry season. When you can smell the berries long before you can see them, it's practically orgasmic. And it's just plain, good food." 

Robin Chotzinoff is a gardener, a staff writer at Denver's Westword and the author of People with Dirty Hands: The Passion for Gardening (Macmillan).

Published August 1996
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