As you sit down with family and friends to celebrate the fruits of the season, imagine turning back the clock and spreading your table with the same authentic and unaltered food that your ancestors ate!
In this issue of The Vine we feature heirloom foods—those old-world varieties that are handed down like treasured objects from generation to generation, which include not just vegetables and fruits (like the well-known heirloom tomatoes), but also grains and legumes, as well as heritage animals, including turkeys and chickens.
Returning to our roots… literally!
An heirloom plant is a vegetable, fruit, or flower that was widely cultivated in the past, but is no longer produced on a large scale. To be called “heirloom,” its cultivar must be more than fifty years old and passed down through generations of farmers.
Unlike hybrid veggies and fruits (including organic ones), which are produced by the merging of two different plants, heirloom seeds rely on natural pollination from insects or the wind—without any help from humans.
These quirky heirlooms may not be as uniform and perfect as what we see on our grocery shelves. They might come in oddball shapes and have curious hues, but that’s just a part of their charm! They also entice us with the ancient tastes and stories of the people, places, and soils from which they came. Their names alone evoke romantic forgotten worlds: Banana Legs Tomatoes, Dragon Tongue Bush Beans, Watermelon Radish, Weebee Little Pumpkins, Sweet Chocolate Peppers, White Star Sprouting Broccoli, Blue Hopi Corn, Purple Majesty Potato, Giant Red Celery, and Magenta Sunset Chard, to name just a few!
These, and thousands of other varieties of fruits and vegetables, were once cultivated in the past, but only a few are ever grown now, and even fewer are seen in our grocery stores. In fact, according to the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, some 60,000 to 100,000 plant varieties are currently on the verge of extinction.
Making a comeback
But have no fear… heirlooms are making a comeback! Along with the popular heirloom tomatoes, we find heirloom carrots, peppers, eggplant, corn, beets, squash, artichokes, cauliflower, cucumbers, potatoes, beans, leafy greens, and more cropping up at farmers’ markets and on the menus of our restaurants. Thanks to the efforts of local gardeners and small farmers, as well as groups like the Organic Seed Alliance and the Seed Savers Exchange, which save and share heirloom seeds, these old-world treasures are being carefully preserved for future generations.
Why embrace these vintage veggies and fruits?
First and foremost, for their distinctive, authentic, and more flavorful taste. Heirlooms also retain their nutritional value, unlike hybrids, which, because they’re created to produce higher yields, lose their nutritional value over time. They also ripen more evenly than hybrids, so they provide a more consistent supply.
Plus, by supporting these precious heirloom varieties, we’re helping our local farmers keep these old, authentic fruits and vegetables from vanishing from our tables forever. And we’re playing our part in ensuring the continuance of the earth’s diversity.
Amber waves of grain
Heirloom grains are grown from seeds that were brought here by immigrants, since America, the land of “amber waves of grain,” actually had no native wheat! With the advent of the modern steel roller mill in the 1870s, even these grains began to disappear, as wheat breeders began to focus on the high-yielding wheat used for refined flour.
Today’s stocky modern varieties of wheat, which have shorter roots and stems, were genetically adapted during the “Green Revolution” of the 1950s and 60s. And a revolution it was indeed, as these new breeds yielded five to ten times more than the traditional big-kernel wheat! This made these grains cheaper and more widely available, but, alas, also stripped them of vital nutrients.
In this last decade, happily, we’ve seen a virtual renaissance of ancient grains, including einkorn, spelt, emmer, kamut, freekeh, barley, and sorghum. These tall, deep-rooted heirloom wheats produce smaller and more nutrient-dense kernels, which are not only lower in gluten, but higher in protein, minerals, and antioxidants. With them has come the wave of old-world stone-ground flours and unique artisan breads that are, gratefully, appearing in our farmers’ markets and natural food stores.
The term “heritage” is used to describe a traditional breed of livestock or poultry that was raised in the past before the emergence of large-scale agriculture. In the case of turkeys, these old, original breeds are called “heritage” turkeys, while a mix of heritage and new breeds are called “heirloom” turkeys.
Heritage turkeys comprise ten breeds that bear such exotic names as Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, Black Spanish, and White Holland, among others. These were all raised before the 1950s, after which farmers began selectively breeding turkeys in order to produce the fast-growing, broad-breasted “butterball” varieties.
- To be considered a heritage turkey, a bird must:
Have a long lifespan. Heritage turkeys must live out the full lifespan of wild turkeys, which is five to seven years for hens and three to five years for toms. This is quite unlike commercial birds, which reach the market after only a year-and-a-half or so.
- Mature slowly. Heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 26 to 28 weeks, versus 14-18 weeks for a commercial bird. This longer growing time enables the bird to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs to support its muscle mass, unlike broad-breasted turkeys that grow so big they are sometimes unable to walk!
- Mate naturally. While commercial turkeys are artificially inseminated, heritage turkeys mate naturally without human intervention, making them more able to withstand diseases and environmental changes.
The result is that these extraordinary, humanely-raised turkeys are quite similar to what our ancestors enjoyed. They have smaller breasts, darker leg meat, more fat, and a gamier flavor. Since they’re more expensive to raise, they are, of course, more expensive to buy. But it’s well worth it to be able to taste what truly natural turkeys were in times gone by and we can understand why eating turkey was once considered such a special treat!
Rediscover these ancient flavors
For your autumn table, take advantage of BriarPatch heirlooms and other delicious offerings. Check out Richard Munroe’s article “What’s in Season this Fall?” on pages 18-19 for an update on our seasonal produce. You can also try our stoneground Red Fife and Frasinetto heirloom wheat flours from Early Bird Farms to bake tasty, healthy breads and pastries. And for your Thanksgiving dinner, try Diestel’s premium organic heirloom turkey or Mary’s humanely-raised heritage turkey (or chicken)! See our “Turkey Time” on page 6 to find out more.
What a delight to rediscover these ancient flavors—almost lost, but not forgotten—which are gradually reappearing for our eating pleasure. Try out a few of our Thanksgiving recipes, enjoy the rich tastes of the season, and have a happy, healthy heirloom harvest feast!