noun; a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations
So says Mr. Webster. But what does it mean when we talk about heirloom foods, such as heirloom tomatoes?
Pretty much the same thing, in fact, but rather than antique clocks and silver vases, we're referring to plant seeds. Heirloom tomatoes, for example, (or heritage tomatoes as they are known in some countries) are non-hybrid tomatoes that have been selectively bred over generations. They are known for their alluring, bulbous shapes with a scalloped exterior and can be found in a spectrum of colors including yellow, green, all shades of red and even striped. The varietal names are also intriguing - Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Hillbilly and Mortgage Lifter to name a few.
But where food is concerned, heirloom doesn't stop with tomatoes. There are Bumble Bee beans, Bull's Blood beets, Dragon carrots, Lemon Drop peppers, and many thousands of other varieties still in existence.
These once common breeds nearly disappeared when it was determined that tomatoes and other delicate summer fruits and vegetables could be grown in the middle of winter in a warm climate and shipped to cold climate regions, as long as they were highly transit-able, very hardy and could be picked well in advance of when they would naturally ripen on the vine. Thus Big Agriculture created through cross-breeding the toughest fruit and vegetable varieties, and it is mostly these that we find in our grocery stores even during prime growing season.
While many consumers welcome the 'progress' that allowed these summer favorites to be available year round, flavor and uniqueness have drastically suffered.
Happily, some dedicated farmers are bringing back to life the almost extinct varieties that were once widely grown. They are more expensive than today's common varieties because a lot of care must be taken in the growing and harvesting. Also, they are typically more perishable. That's a good thing; it means that the heirloom foods you find in your local store were grown somewhere near you and are much fresher as a result.
Farmers markets are a terrific source of heritage varietals, as is your own backyard. Personally, my thumb has never been green and living at 7,000 feet has not helped my gardening ability. Thankfully, I support our local farmers and have been rewarded with heritage varieties of cherries, apples, tomatoes, peaches and greens.
If you are the green thumb type, help is at hand if you want to grow your own heirloom tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. The best (and most economical) way is to start by purchasing some heirloom seeds, planting them, and then saving the seeds from the plants at the end of the growing season.
The Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is a non-profit organization dedicated to stopping the erosion of genetic diversity in our foods by encouraging growers to plant heirloom varietals. Their website is a wealth of information.
The SSE sells many varieties of heritage seeds online, and members gain access to over 12,000 more varieties through a member-to-member exchange catalog. You may also be able to find seed exchange events in your community; check with your local nursery or community garden.
If you already have an heirloom plant or seeds, there is a tool on the SSE site where you can enter the name of the vegetable, flower or herb and up pops a brief explanation of how to germinate, grow and save the seeds.
For more in-depth instructions, the book, "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth is considered one of the best references on the subject. It provides all of the information you'll need to produce and store heirloom seeds for your home garden.
On an international level, saving seeds and preserving genetic diversity of foods is important to the world's food supply. The more Big Agriculture narrows its focus to grow only the heartiest, most travel-friendly crops, the more susceptible the crops are to blight.
On a personal level, growing and /or consuming heritage fruits and vegetables is highly satisfying. Not only do we help the environment with genetic diversity, we also get to savor the superior flavor of these old-time crops. Better flavor also means less cooking; keep the preparation simple and let the natural sweetness or earthiness shine through. Try some of these recipes with your heirloom foods tonight: