(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 9, 2008)
One of the most reassuring things to many people is familiar food. It reminds us of places and people from our past and we take comfort in the connection with those who have come before us. Whether they landed at Ellis Island, Miami, or San Francisco, each culture and geographical region brought their seeds to this giant melting pot and we embraced each delicacy as a culinary treasure. In the last few years growing heirloom vegetables has become a trendy thing to do and they command premium prices at farmers' markets and restaurants alike. People who purchase these lovely edibles never stop to think about where they actually came from.
These seeds came out of hiding from the hills of Appalachia, New England farms, Chinatown, Native American communities, Little Havana or the Wisconsin lake country. What was saved for generations in isolated areas is now fashionable and popular. Very few consider the journey that these seeds have made to their garden or table.
Native peoples of the Americas gave the world corn, tomatoes, squash, potatoes and many beans. They used these vegetables to sustain their communities for thousands of years. At each harvest, they reverently saved the seeds from their best produce to plant again in the spring, thus assuring that the plants that adapted the best and produced the most, were responsible for the next generation.
The same thing was happening all over the world. Cultures were developing varieties that best suited their climates and way of life without realizing that their diligence would someday result in modern man 'discovering' the virtues of their common every-day foods. Melons and cucumbers from the Middle East. Okra and cowpeas from Africa. Various kales and cabbages were developed around the Mediterranean from a single wild cabbage-like plant. Eggplant from Asia and hot peppers from the Caribbean. No matter in what corner of the globe one lives, our fruit and vegetable heritage is totally international and multicultural.
Many people pay premium prices for heirloom produce just because they have been told that it is better. And anyone who compares a tasteless supermarket tomato to a 'Brandywine' has to agree. But what happened to our produce? How did it become the tough, tasteless offerings glistening from water spray in the supermarket produce bins? The answer lies in progress.
At the end of World War Two, most everything was in chaos. American soldiers were returning to the U.S., but were wanting factory jobs near urban areas. Europe was a mess. Millions of displaced people and an infrastructure nearly destroyed, contributed to large groups of hungry people. The farmlands were war-torn, with few farmers selling their crops commercially. Food shortages were wide-spread.
In steps the brand-new agribusiness industry. Varieties of food crops needed to be developed with increased production and disease resistance. They needed to be uniformly shaped and the skins needed to be tough enough to withstand automated harvest and shipping for long distances. The modern hybrid vegetable was born. Hybrid vegetables served a purpose. Produce could be shipped to urban areas and suburbs for families there to purchase. The plants were bred to have all of the crop ripen at the same time, so factory farms could automate harvests. They would then haul it to the processing plants to be canned or frozen for shipment overseas to hungry Europe. Food production shifted from family farms to corporations.
Families rarely relied on a kitchen garden anymore and convenience foods were developed to help the working women who left their homes during the war to take the jobs that the men were not there to do. It was a time of great changes across the globe and commercial farms were needed to keep up with feeding the masses. Plants were bred for production and ease of harvest and shipping. Little if any attention was paid to how the crops actually tasted. A whole generation grew up without knowing the intense flavor and tender textures of the old open pollinated crops of the first half of the 20th century.
They were still there. A bean saved by a family in Oklahoma and tomatoes in West Virginia communities. Cabbages in Denmark and beets saved in Soviet Russia by little towns who stubbornly refused to buy the hybrid plants pushed by the government. All over the world, old varieties were grown each season without fanfare. The harvest was preserved or eaten, and a connection to ancestors long gone was felt.
Each time I plant an heirloom seed, I hold it in my hand and marvel about its journey to me. I actually have a physical connection to the families who came to this country with nothing but their hopes and dreams, and their seeds. They cared enough about them to bring these treasured varieties along. Through hardship and poverty, the seeds still came. The people fled wars and dictators. Many were sole survivors from large families. They brought their pitiful belongings...and their seeds.
By planting heirlooms, I am honoring the people who built this country. They may have been relatives or indentured servants. They may have been Native Americans already here, or slaves, or landed gentry. All came here, and became what this nation is today. The seeds were something that they touched. A physical connection to whoever they were. I have many people looking over my shoulder each spring when I plant, they are with me as I water and weed. They celebrate each harvest with me, and I feel their presence as I prepare the vegetables and fruits.
Heirloom seeds are a legacy of countless lives who saved them for the future. They were true optimists