ashley englishsmall measures

small measures with ashley: heirloom foods

by Grace Bonney

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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.

Suggested For You


  • I love heirloom tomatoes and if I had a yard I would grow all sorts of heirloom fruits and veggies! Oh and I adore your heirloom glasses!

  • We always order our seeds from Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa – a true mom & pop enterprise, their mission to preserve heirloom seeds and poultry is inspiring!

  • My Seed Savers order came last week! I live in NYC, but my sunny balcony is great for tomatoes, beans, carrots, lettuce, basil, and plenty of other veggies willing to grow in pots! However, I’m saving my dreams of chickens for the future…

  • If you’re interested in heritage poultry, check out Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch. They produce the only truly heirloom (heritage) poultry in the US. Their shipping costs are high, but the meat itself isn’t any more expensive than what you’d find at a farmer’s market. Place large orders to save money. Best meat you’ll ever taste.

  • Love love love Ashleys posts! I’m doing a giveaway on my blog right now for a variety of heirloom variety seeds- many from Seed Savers.

  • Thanks for writing a bit about this topic. I too am planting an heirloom vegetable garden (from seed savers). Sometimes it feels as if I’m making such a small contribution to a lasting and stable food supply, thanks for reminding me that each person’s small choices can add up!

  • Increased awareness of the chain of production that goes into each and every bite is essential to our future food security – I’m a bit transient right now (college, natch) but I have big plans for some container gardens! And one day, I plan to have my own flock of heritage hens.

    These posts have been truly inspiring and well-written.

  • wonderful. i’m getting ready to start this year’s spring/summer garden and somehow didn’t realize that “heirloom” goes beyond tomatoes. of course it does. i’m now on the hunt for local heirloom seeds of all sorts!

  • This is my favorite series here on Design*Droits-Humains. I have loved that you are branching out into other interests, Grace. I feel that knowledge of anything can help one in other fields. I am trying hard to live with a light footprint, especially with food. I’ll be growing an all-heirloom vegetable garden this summer and can’t wait to explore the different tastes and growing habits of everything. Thanks again for hosting this wonderful series!

  • Thanks for this article, it’s something close to my heart. :)

    I work at a historical farm site in British Columbia, just outside of Vancouver ( called the Stewart Farmhouse, ) and we have a heritage orchard filled with varieties of apples that are nearing extinction. We also have a heritage variety garden, with many volunteers saving seeds each year to grow for the next, and sell so the seeds reach others.

    I am THRILLED to hear the call to make 2010 “The Year of the Heritage Apple”! I can’t wait to tell my boss. Hehe.

    Biodiversity is so important, and if all these varieties just disappear, no one will know how lovely the spice of life really can be. I’ve had the pleasure of biting into many an apple dating back to the 1650’s and would love to see these old types come back into fashion.


  • This topic is close to my heart to. We have a small 48 square foot vegetable garden in our yard and we grow primarily heirlooms in it.

    It’s important to us for a couple of reasons;
    -the taste is unparalleled
    -it’s nice to be able to save the seeds and grow more plants in the future
    -heirloom plants seem a little hardier
    -it breaks my heart to hear of flora + fauna going extinct

    There is something really special about growing a plant that has been around for years and years.

  • Noticed your web page on del.icio.us today and really loved it.. i saved as a favorite it and will be back to check it out some more later .. As a Noob, I am frequently seeking online for content articles that can help me. Best wishes! Regards, Naida.

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