Hippo Reads is proud to partner with authors and publishers to feature excerpts of new titles. Today’s post is reprinted with permission from Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods  by Jennifer A. Jordan, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2015 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


How could anything as perishable as fruits and vegetables become an heirloom? Many things that are heirlooms today were once simple everyday objects. A quilt made of fabric scraps, a wooden bowl used in the last stages of making butter, both become heirlooms only as time increases between now and the era of their everyday use. Likewise, the Montafoner Braunvieh—a tawny, gorgeously crooked-horned cow that roams a handful of pastures and zoos in Europe, a tuft of hair like bangs above her big brown eyes—or the Ossabaw pigs that scurry around on spindly legs at Mount Vernon were not always “heirlooms.” Nor were the piles of multicolored tomatoes that periodically grace the cover of Martha Stewart Living magazine or the food pages of daily newspapers. What happened to change these plants and animals from everyday objects into something rare and precious, imbued with stories of the past? In fact, food has always been an heirloom in the sense of saving seeds, of passing down the food you eat to your children and your children’s children, in a mixture of the genetic code of a given food (a cow, a variety of wheat, a tomato), and also in handing down the techniques of cultivation, preservation, preparation, and even a taste for particular foods. It is only with the rise of industrial agriculture that this practice of treating food as a literal heirloom has disappeared in many parts of the world—and that is precisely when the heirloom label emerges. The chain is broken for many people as they flock to the cities and the number of farmers and gardeners declines. So the concept of an heirloom becomes possible only in the context of the loss of actual heirloom varieties, of increased urbanization and industrialization as fewer people grow their own food, or at least know the people who grow their food. These are global issues, relevant to hunger and security and to cultural memory, community, and place. This book addresses one aspect of the much larger spectrum of issues around culture and agricultural biodiversity, focusing on these old seeds and trees.

In some ways heirlooms become possible (as a concept) only because of the industrialization and standardization of agriculture. They went away, there was a cultural and agricultural break, placing temporal and practical distance between current generations and past foods. In the meantime, gardeners and farmers quietly saved seeds for their own use. And then, as I discuss in much greater detail below, these heirloom foods began, tomato by tomato, apple by apple, to return to some degree of popularity.

In the United States, newspaper article after article, activist after activist, describes heirloom varieties as something one’s grandmother might have eaten. The implication is that there has been a significant break—that the current generation and their parents lost touch with these fruits, vegetables, and animals but that their grandparents might not have. “Heirlooms are major-league hot,” a reporter [Carol Nuckols, for Charleston’s Post and Courier] marveled in 1995. “As we become more of a technological society, people are reaching into the garden to get back that simple life, the simple life of their grandparents.” Concepts like “old-fashioned,” “just like Grandma ate,” and even “heirloom” can feel very American. But this is a mythical grandmother. The grandmothers of today’s United States are a diverse crew whose cooking habits are just one of the ways they differ. Gender is also obviously a vital element of the study of food production and consumption. Women are perceived as (and often are) the primary cooks and shoppers, and there are many gendered understandings of our relationships to food. Many people, men and women alike, have little time to cook, despite recent exhortations to engage in more home cooking. My own grandmother smoked cigarettes and drank martinis with gusto, and for her, making Christmas cookies consisted of melting peanut butter and butterscotch chips, stirring in cornflakes, and forming the mixture into little clumps that would harden as they cooled. I loved them as a child, and when I make them today, I am invoking my grandmother just as much as other people may when serving up a platter of ancestral heirloom tomatoes.

In the context of food, however, the word “heirloom” also has a genetic connotation. The object itself is not handed down. Heirloom tomatoes are either eaten or they rot. Old-fashioned breeds of pigs are slaughtered and end up as pork chops; they rarely live a long life like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, without the help of a literate spider and a film career. The “heirloom,” then, what is handed down, is the genetic code. Heirloom foods are products of human intervention, ranging from selecting what seeds to save for the next growing season to deciding which tom turkey should father poults with which hen.

The genetic heirloom takes on a physical expression in the form of a pig or a tomato, for example, to which people may then attach all kinds of meanings—not only the physical appetite for the flavor of a particular tomato or pork chop, but also the sense that edible heirlooms connect us to something many people see as more authentic than supermarket fare. Over and over, in conversations and newspaper articles, orchards and public lectures, I have heard people articulating a search for a connection to the past, even as they also sought out appealing flavors, colors, and textures. The appetite for an heirloom food commonly leads, of course, to the destruction of its embodiment—in a Caprese salad, say, or an apple pie—but it is precisely the consumption of its phenotype that ensures the survival of the genetic code that gave rise to it.

Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables by Benjamin A. Watson describes heirloom status (of tomatoes and other produce) in three ways:

  1. The variety must be able to reproduce itself from seed [except those propagated through roots or cuttings]. . . .
  2. The variety must have been introduced more than 50 years ago. Fifty years, is, admittedly, an arbitrary cutoff date, and different people use different dates. . . . A few people use an even stricter definition, considering heirlooms to be only those varieties developed and preserved outside the commercial seed trade. . . .
  3. The variety must have a history of its own.

The term “heirloom” itself generally applies to varieties that are capable of being pollen fertilized and that existed before the 1940s, when industrial farming spread in North America and the variety of species grown commercially was significantly reduced. Generally speaking, an heirloom can reproduce itself from seed, meaning seed saved from the previous year. When growing hybrids, you have to buy new seed each year (for plants that reproduce true to seed; apples, potatoes, and some other fruits and vegetables are preserved and propagated through grafts or cuttings rather than seeds). In other words, if you save the seeds of a hybrid tomato and plant them the next year, you more than likely won’t be pleased with what you get, if you get anything at all. Furthermore, simply because they are “heirloom” tomatoes does not mean they are native. In fact, tomatoes are native not to the United States, but to South and Central America, and many heirloom varieties such as the Caspian Pink were developed in Russia and other far-off places. People also use the term “heirloom” to describe old varieties of roses, ornamental plants, fruit trees (reproduced by grafting rather than from seed), potatoes, and even livestock.

As the US Department of Agriculture’s heirloom vegetable guide explains, “Dating to the early 20th C. and before, many [heirloom varieties] originated during a very different agricultural age—when localized and subsistence-based food economies flourished, when waves of immigrant farmers and gardeners brought cherished seeds and plants to this country, and before seed saving had dwindled to a ‘lost art’ among most North American farmers and gardeners.” Fashions, tastes, and technology changed, but [according to Suzanne DeMuth’s Vegetables and Fruits: A Guide to Heirloom Varieties and Community-based Stewardship] “since the 1970s, an expanding popular movement dedicated to perpetuating and distributing these garden classics has emerged among home gardeners and small-scale growers, with interest and endorsement from scientists, historians, environmentalists, and consumers.” In Germany they speak of alte Sorten, “old varieties,” but this phrasing does not carry the same sym- bolic, nostalgic weight as the homey word “heirloom.” In French heirloom varieties may be called légumes oubliés, “forgotten vegetables,” or légumes anciennes. Of course, once vegetables are labeled forgotten, they’re not really forgotten anymore. In general, the United States has a different relationship to its past than European countries do. Thus there are regional gardening and cooking traditions in the United States, as well as a particular form of nostalgia that allows the term “heirloom” to apply to fruits, vegetables, and animals in the first place. The idea of an heirloom object can be very homespun. Certainly an heirloom can be something of great monetary value, but it can also be a threadbare quilt, a grandfather’s toolbox, or in my case the worn and mismatched paddles my great-great-aunt used in the last stages of making butter. The word “heirloom” can be a way to preserve biodiversity, but it can also be inaccurate and misused, a label slapped on an overpriced tomato. There is always the danger that dishonest grocers and restaurateurs will exploit the desire for local, seasonal, and heirloom food.

Heirlooms of all sorts are often wrapped up in nostalgic ideas about the past. Patchwork quilts and butter churns evoke not only idyllic images of yesteryear, but often difficult lives circumscribed by poverty and dire necessity as much as by simplicity and self-sufficiency. They speak of times (and, when we think globally, of places) when life may have been (or may still be) not only technologically simpler but also much, much harder. Old-fashioned farm implements in the front yards of rural Wisconsin, or in living history museums, evoke nostalgic feelings. But there’s a reason they’re in museums or front yards and not hitched to a team of horses or in the hands of a farmer, at least in Wisconsin. These are backbreaking tools whose functions have wherever possible been transferred to machines.

Even today, while it may surprise people who pick up a book like this, when I first tell someone about my work, I routinely have to explain what an heirloom tomato is. On a recent trip to a Milwaukee farmers’ market, I heard an older man say to his female companion, “Heirloom tomatoes? Never heard of ’em.” He’s not alone. While some food writers and restaurant reviewers may feel that heirloom tomatoes are yesterday’s news, plenty of consumers are still encountering them for the first time.

Heirloom varieties are just one form of edible memory, but they offer a unique opportunity to understand the powerful ways memory and materiality interact, and how the stories we tell one another about the past shape the world we inhabit. I write about heirlooms not because I think they’re the only way to go, but because they present an intriguing sociological puzzle (How can something as perishable as a tomato become an heirloom?) and because they are the subject of so much activity by so many different people. These efforts, all this work, are also just the latest turn in the twisting path of fruit and vegetable trends, of the relationship of these plants to human communities.


Image Credit: David McSpadden via flickr