Go For the Heirloom Harvest

Richard Drace, Board President

In the kitchen my daughter Miriam is eating half a Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato. Without asking if she wants the other half—which is sitting on the counter looking up at me imploringly—I slice off much more than a reasonable mouthful and go into a gustatory swoon.
Yes, this tomato looks a bit weird with its sanguine color, greenish top, and bulbous physique. And yes, it did cost more—or, I should say I think it did. But when my palate wins out over economy—which happens to me occasionally at BriarPatch—I deliberately don’t look at the price. I tell myself I’ll go without some other treat and then pretend that I haven’t slighted economy altogether.

But why not have just a plain ol’ regular standard-issue tomato—perfectly red, perfectly round, perfectly smooth, with a shelf life approximating that of the shelf itself? No big deal, right?… that is, unless taste matters.

I remember a talk show interview with the scientist who developed the so-called “market tomato.” He extolled its virtues: perfectly red, perfectly round, perfectly smooth, and with a shelf life approximating that of the shelf itself. When the host teased him a bit, the scientist replied a bit defensively that it was never meant to be a produce tomato; his assignment was to develop a product that would hold up to the rigors of canning. But it held up so well that grocers, too, took to it immediately. He did agree that it “suffered a bit from lack of palatability,” but otherwise, he boasted, it was a pretty good invention.

We like to think that progress means improvement—moving beyond where we were to a better place. The re-emergence of heirloom produce, though, speaks loudly declares that maybe conventional agriculture has been too presumptive about its “progress.” The important question should be, “Whose interests are these improvements improving?” Should I worry that the farmer, the packer, the shipper, and the produce stocker has to handle that Cherokee Purple more carefully so I can enjoy my tomato moment?

I like the word “heirloom”—a family treasure to be passed on to one’s heirs. My (sorry, Miriam’s) Cherokee Purple doesn’t have the shelf life to pass on to heirs (thankfully), but we don’t have to be paleo-romantic to pass along the tradition of what real food has always meant—including that it does NOT “suffer from a lack of palatability.”

Food traditions are among those connections that keep us kin with our archetypal human family. And they challenge the assumption of conventional agriculture that a synthesized product is better than the real thing.

So here’s my recommendation: Don’t risk alimentary alienation. Go for the heirloom harvest, whether it’s from our market, the farmer’s market, or your own garden. Go primitive—you’ll be both way behind, and way ahead of the times.