Family Heirlooms

by Eric Overton

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photo by Vasile Bulgac

The proliferation of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in our highly industrial age worries people, though ironically it’s a consumerist complex we feed, whether or not we’re aware of it feeding us in return. The organic alternative, believed to be the safer choice is often the go-to grub for food skeptics and the health-minded eater. The modern scale and scope of industrial agriculture has engendered a loss in genetic diversity. Preservation of this diversity is a challenge, but inquiring culinary minds and green thumbs alike might already be experimenting with the time-tested boutique variety of produce: heirloom.

Harold McGee, patron saint of gastronomy, writes in On Food and Cooking that the end of the twentieth century brought about a paradigm shift in American farming practice. Certainly in the last half decade, with the rise of the home gardener other avenues for self-starting and self-sufficiency have become more prevalent. If for no other reason to grow it, heirloom produce is known to be brimming with more flavor than its industrially procured counterparts. Unlike the single-use variety of common fruits and vegetables, heirlooms do not self-sterilize and their seeds will continue to bear fruit, building resistance to blight or disease a diversification trait missing from most modern genetically modified organisms.

Heirloom produce succeeds as the hipsters of the food world given their vintage nature, unique rareness and the simple fact that they’re from common everyday fruit and vegetable families, but with names that you’ve literally never heard of. For example, unless you’re a healthy Whole Foods junkie, a frequent farmer’s market foodie, or cultivating your own hipster garden, you may have never seen nor heard of Amish deer tongue lettuce, Ojai pixie tangerines, Costoluto Genovese tomatoes, elephant heart plums, or the Gilfeather turnip. With names reminiscent of fairy tale magic potion ingredients these are all examples of American “heritage foods” currently listed on the Ark of Taste, a global compilation maintained by the Slow Food International movement, which includes unique foods at risk of extinction. For inquiring minds, to be nominated to the list the food item must: “be outstanding in terms of taste as defined in the context of local traditions and uses, be at risk either biologically or in traditional culinary use, sustainably produced, culturally or historically linked to a specific region, locality, ethnicity or traditional production practice, and produced in limited quantities, by farms or by small-scale processing companies.” The Ark of Taste exists for plants and animals grown and cultivated all over the world in a variety of ecological niches. Currently, with a nod to my home state, their featured product is Lake Michigan whitefish, an economic and cultural centerpiece on which the local fishing industry relies. Proponents of the slow food movement are encouraged to seek out rare foods in the area, initiate a recovery project for endangered foods or food production methods, and if you aren’t already, grow them in your garden if you can.

The Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/) and Native seeds/SEARCH (http://www.nativeseeds.org/) are both examples of non-profit organizations focused on seed conservation, agricultural education and distribution of heirloom seeds. The importance of heirloom produce is not only its cultural, time-tested significance but also its testament to naturally occurring practices that have succeeded for generations without scientific advancements. William Woys Weaver, author of 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From writes “…heirlooms connect you to literally every corner of the globe and allow you to participate in, and help perpetuate, a global tradition that links us with gardeners across thousands of years of human history.” With this in mind, there’s hardly a reason not to get gardening.

Eric Overton

Eric began cooking in a small Italian restaurant in Ann Arbor, afterwards moving from an artisan bakery to the Culinary Institute of America. Since graduating, he has worked in a variety of kitchens. Currently living outside Detroit, he will be volunteering for an urban farming and gardening project this year.

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