Why We Love Heirloom Varieties

Many avid gardeners become enthralled – even obsessed – with the scope and variety of heirloom fruits and vegetables. If you’ve ever wondered why, this book answers the question!

It’s no secret – sustainable gardeners love heirlooms! We seek them out at farmer’s markets, save seeds, swap different varieties of seeds with others, discuss the flavors of our fruits, post pictures of them on social media, etc., etc.

Many of these varieties have been around for decades, so why are we so interested in them now?

In the new book, Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods, by Jennifer Jordan, we learn the answers to this question, and more.

Here is a short interview with the author:

We’re not shy about our affinity for the Cherokee Purple, a purplish package of sweet, acid and savory tomato greatness.

But every year, the Cherokee Purple’s preeminence…is challenged by new heirlooms we’ve never tried before. This year, we’re wowed by the Paul Robeson, a varietal from Russia which, in addition to its gorgeous dark red tones and earthy taste, is named for a famous African-American singer, actor and civil rights activist.

It’s these stories of people, places and soils of yore that are a huge part of heirlooms’ appeal, according to Jennifer Jordan, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. And by cultivating and consuming this biodiversity, we’re literally keeping the past alive.

…[Her book] explores the powerful social force of nostalgic foods, and why a “growing number of people seek in heirlooms both a new culinary experience and a connection to a more generalized past.”

We caught up with Jordan by phone to chat about the heirloom food movement. Here’s part of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

Why do we have this tendency to infuse foods with the past?

I think there are several different reasons. Food can be very personal, for example, edible memories within families. Here in Wisconsin, rhubarb patches are really important. If a house gets sold, people vie to get cuttings of the plant. If rhubarb is something you grow up with, you may want to carry it into the future — it’s a very immediate memory.

At the other end of the spectrum, a lot of people are interested in experiencing the past at places like colonial Williamsburg, where you get immersed in a sensory experience. Food is another way to do that. I got the idea for the book by thinking about how the heirloom tomato and the antique apple allow you to eat a piece of history.

When did the heirloom food movement get started?

Heirlooms started to get public awareness in the U.S. in the late 1980s and ’90s. Before then, it was becoming a concept among home gardeners. In 1984, The Heirloom Gardener was published. And then it really takes off in the ’90s.

Where do you see it now?

There are clearly a lot of people, in a lot of different places, who love heirloom tomatoes, and grow them or buy them from a farmer….

Access to the seeds and seedlings has really increased. That’s an interesting change. Home gardeners have a lot more opportunities to bring heirloom seeds into their gardens.

But there are still people who haven’t heard of them….

…What’s an example of a vegetable that was once fashionable but hasn’t garnered much treatment as an heirloom today?


For more of Jennifer’s answers, see the full article at NPR.org.



Rose S.

An avid gardener since childhood, I love sharing my passion for gardening with others! I have gardened in a number of different climates and settings, from large fenced garden plots, to tiny patio and container gardens, and I firmly believe that everyone can learn to grow at least some of their own food - no matter where you live. Growing your own food can help you take control of your own health and food supply, and there has never been a better time to get started!

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