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I wear heirloom eyeglasses. My rhinestone-bedazzled cat-eye belonged to my great-grandmother, Lena May. They’re from the ’60’s and, barring an unfortunate incident this autumn where they broke in half right before my eyes (thank heavens for folks-they’re a dying breed, and I mean that quite literally), they’re in great shape. They garner many complements and I love relaying that they are a family keepsake. I’ve long loved the idea of heirlooms, of stewardship, and of preservation. I’ve worked hard to take care of the things lovingly passed down to me by family members.
My enthusiasm for generational hand-me-downs extends into my dietary choices, and to some of my most abiding passions. Are you aware that North America used to possess over 16,000 varieties of apples? Yep-16,000! Relayed in a lecture I attended last Friday by conservationist, lecturer, and food and farming advocate , that number has now dwindled to around 3,000. According to Nabhan, roughly 9 out of 10 apple varieties with long and storied histories of growth in North America are at risk of extinction. Gone. Forever.
Today’s small measure is on the preservation, growing, and consumption of heirloom varieties of foods. Why does that matter? Why should we be concerned about having more choices of apple at the market then red delicious or granny smith (with a few pink lady’s, galas, and fujis thrown in for good measure)? The reasons are four-fold, according to Nabhan and the organization that he is a member of: ecological, culinary, cultural, and health.
CLICK HERE for the rest of Ashley’s “Heirloom Foods” post after the jump!
As R.A.F.T. explains it, ecological benefits are evidenced because “plant and animal diversity sustains healthy ecological relationships and sustainable agricultural practices. This diversity also encourages resistance to pests and diseases, ensuring our food security.” Culinary benefits are contributed because “Inherent in a diversity of foods is a variety of aromas, textures, and flavors that increase pleasures and help us along in our pursuit of happiness.” Anything that tastes good and moves me along in my pursuit of happiness is fine by me. Culturally, “Our daily meals come from the strong hands and creative minds of individuals in food-producing communities. Traditional agricultural and culinary knowledge is passed from one practitioner to the next. This knowledge about how to harvest and cook the plants and animals around us is key to our survival as a species and worth documenting and celebrating.” Behind every fork- or spoon-ful of food that you consume, there is a person-many people, actually. They all have stories and histories and cumulative knowledge of food practices. Maintaining and stewarding that knowledge is imperative. Lastly, benefits to health are present in heirloom foods on account of the fact that “Getting nutrients from whole foods that are adapted to the regions in which we live and work helps our resistance to disease, particularly diabetes and heart disease.”
Keeping a large pool of food crops growing provides a good deal of food insurance and stability, as well. Should one crop species become susceptible to a disease, fungus, or worse, other crops might remain unscathed. Basic genetics evidences this, as a large gene pool provides extensive genetic diversity, offering robust populations that can withstand certain instances that others might fall prey to. Heirloom crops (and animals) offer the peace of mind that, should red delicious apples suddenly become susceptible to a devastating blight, perhaps their kin, regionally dispersed to thrive in a variety of climates and terrains, will make it through without a hitch.
The efforts to preserve foods and food traditions isn’t exclusive to North America. is an international project working to “rediscover, catalog, describe and publicize forgotten flavors.” Spanning the globe, the Ark of Taste program seeks to retain the notion of “places having tastes.” Commonly described as “terroir” (pronounced “tair WHAR”), the notion of place-based-taste refers to the way in which variation of soil composition, farming techniques, and weather patterns influence the way foods taste. Coffee from Venezuela will taste different from coffee from Indonesia. Those foods that become extinct, lost through hybridization, are gone forever. We’d all be well served to promote their cultivation and continuance.
is an organization promoting heirloom seed exchange and seed collection (an increased number of hybridized plants contain seeds that will not reproduce, or, if they do, they won’t reproduce “true to type”, meaning the offspring are different from the parent plants; heirloom plants and animals retain all of their genetic material). is a non-profit located in the Southwest U.S. working to “conserve, distribute and document the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seed, their wild relatives and the role these seeds play in cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico.” For animals, the seeks to “ensure the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.”
In this article, Mr. Nabhan puts out a call to make 2010 the “Year of the Heirloom Apple.” The article provides mouth-watering recipes for incorporating heirloom apples into your culinary repertoire, as well as sources for locating sellers of heirloom, place-based foods in your area. I’ve already put my order in for 3 trees, native to my growing region (native to my state, in fact), that I’ll travel in November two hours north to North Carolina’s “High County” to gather and then plant. I’ve collected heirloom seeds to start for my spring and summer vegetable garden. I’m hoping to add to my flock of hens with a few heirloom breeds this spring. Small measures, each one, but cumulatively possessing the potential for lasting food security. We all have to eat. l look forward to experiencing the heirlooms that showcase what my place tastes like.