Read an Excerpt from “Edible Memory,” Our Summer Book Club Pick
Today is the first day of our seasonal Twitter book club #ReadUCP. For our first pick, we invite you to join us throughout July and August to read and discuss Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Vegetables and Other Forgotten Foods by Jennifer A. Jordan, while sharing stories and photos from our gardens, markets, kitchens, and plates.
To get things started, here’s a little homegrown taste of what you’ll find inside the pages.
What kinds of changes have vegetables undergone over time? And what are the fates of particular vegetables in this era of heirloom food? When I began my search in mainstream food writing for coverage of forgotten turnips, celery, and other less glamorous vegetables, I found very little. Particular blogs, authors, and chefs zeroed in on particular heirloom vegetables at various moments, but there was no comparison with the coverage of heirloom tomatoes or apples. My initial inclination was to think that this silence reflected forgetting. But in fact these supposedly forgotten vegetables inspire extremes of devotion in some seed savers, gardeners, and farmers, and it is to these people (more than to urban diners and famous chefs) that they owe their survival.
My research into popular food writing yielded almost nothing about leeks, cauliflower, turnips, and a host of other heirloom vegetables. Overall, I found far fewer mentions of all these vegetables combined than of heirloom tomatoes. Some fruits and vegetables are more evocative than others, but I was truly surprised at the dearth of writing about heirloom vegetables overall compared with heirloom tomatoes and apples.
At the same time, every one of these vegetables provokes passionate commitment in at least a handful of gardeners, eaters, or chefs. The history of a given heirloom variety rarely reaches back beyond the eighteenth century (and more frequently the nineteenth), although there are some fundamental exceptions, such as pre-Columbian potatoes, beans, and corn. A very wide range of historical moments and geographic locations can provide the narrative necessary for a given vegetable to qualify as an heirloom. As with tomatoes, the heirloom phase in these vegetables’ careers is just the most recent moment in centuries—even millennia—of changing uses and meanings. For starters, some vegetables that languish in obscurity today were once highly fashionable or essential to the daily nourishment of vast numbers of people. Much vegetable life has moved in and out of fashion. As Guthman and others assert, these fashions—these changing tastes—have direct consequences for fields and bodies, for physical and social landscapes.
I expected the specific memories and stories attached to these vegetables to play a crucial role in public discussions of heirloom vegetables, but they were almost entirely absent from most newspaper food writing. Even those heirloom vegetables that do appear with some frequency often lack deep stories. At least in popular discussions of food, and in venues where much ink is spilled over heirloom tomatoes (and to a lesser extent antique apples), turnips, leeks, beets, and other vegetables are not as charged with connections to the past as tomatoes, apples, or even grain. Even the origins of vegetables that receive relatively extensive coverage—like heirloom beets, beans, squashes, lettuce, pumpkins, and carrots—are rarely part of the tale. Most articles don’t even mention the name of the variety but leave it at “heirloom celery” (on the rare occasion that heirloom celery makes an appearance).
Why, then, are some fruits and vegetables remembered while others are forgotten? And what are the consequences of this forgetting? For starters, something like leek biodiversity is not integrated into the culinary lives of large numbers of people, outside of a few leek-loving regions of the world. There may also be botanical reasons for this—simply the lack of the same biodiversity available with tomatoes, potatoes, and apples. How much has to do with cooking? You don’t have to cook heirloom tomatoes, but turnips and leeks often need some cooking, which may dilute their flavors and texture and color considerably com- pared with raw tomatoes or raw apples. I doubt that any other vegetable, fruit, or grain will experience the same change in fortunes as the tomato. Heirloom tomatoes dominate in part because of their great variety in color, flavor, and texture. Heirloom leeks (forgive me, lovers of leeks attuned to subtleties I have not yet learned to perceive) do not present this same aesthetic variety, nor do a host of other vegetables. That said, taro root, for example, is eaten in vast quantities around the globe cooked rather than raw (raw taro root is toxic), yet consumers can readily distinguish different varieties of taro, even when it is cooked and pulverized.
One farmer offered a useful theory about why lettuce, for example, might spark less interest than tomatoes: “People don’t reminisce about the great red Batavian lettuce they ate when they were kids the way they recall tantalizing tomatoes and mouth-watering melons.” And lettuce clearly does not pack the same nutritional punch as beans, which play a huge role in global eating habits. This comparative lack of media references may also occur because most fruits and vegetables have far fewer heirloom varieties: there simply aren’t as many kinds of leeks or turnips as tomatoes, and the differences are more subtle than the vivid variations in tomato varieties. In addition, non-heirloom tomatoes and apples are also particularly popular, so it makes sense that the heirloom varieties would also be particularly popular. In Forgotten Fruits, Christopher Stocks writes that “of all the vegetables . . . cabbages are perhaps the least glamorous, with the possible exception of turnips. Maybe this explains why the history of individual varieties is so sparse: while the introduction of a delicious new apple might be cause for general rejoicing, the launch of a new type of cabbage is unlikely to generate such widespread celebration. . . . What it isn’t—and what it has probably never been—is fashionable.”
Food writer Jane Black concurs: “What I thought was interesting about heirloom tomatoes is the way most people are only like that about tomatoes. You rarely hear people demanding heirloom radishes or cucumbers, though they certainly exist. (I have seen heirloom beans and beets on menus though. Next big thing?)” Based on my research, yes, they are in line to become fashionable for a tiny segment of the population, but not on anything close to the scale of apples or tomatoes. Not surprisingly (to me, at least), Portlandia captures this phenomenon in a dramatic sketch about the attempts to make heirloom celery the next big thing. As one review of the sketch sets the scene, “Kale is cool, Brussels sprouts are back, heirloom tomatoes are hot, and the head of the
Produce Sales Headquarters is very happy. But there’s one outlier to the up-and-to-the-right sales charts that the organization is seeing with other vegetables: celery.” Despite the comedic and imaginary challenges of marketing heirloom celery in the universe of Portlandia, there is certainly a coattail effect; the popularity of heirloom tomatoes paved the way for “heirloom” to become a meaningful way of describing a host of vegetables.
One article asserts that heirloom iceberg lettuce really is no different in taste and texture from regular iceberg lettuce. This critical approach to heirlooms is not uncommon, and some of the appreciation of heirlooms happens because people learn the story behind these foods. One of the few mentions of the history of lettuce refers to George Washington’s predilection for fresh greens, and Colonial Williamsburg plants colonial lettuces in their demonstration nursery. “Meals back in the days of Gen. George Washington consisted of more than just meat, bread and potatoes. There was a fondness for greens during the 18th century. Each morning, Washington ordered his regimental officer to gather leafy plants growing near the camp and distribute them among the men. Wesley Greene, a garden historian with Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, likes to share that bit of information when he tells visitors about the heirloom lettuces growing in the demonstration Colonial Nursery on Duke of Gloucester Street.” Washington’s insistence on daily foraging was owing not only to his fondness for greens, but also to the necessity of supplementing the meager provisions avail- able for his soldiers, as well as concerns about scurvy, which had devastated the redcoats in the first winter of the war.
The story of heirloom lettuce is not as crucial to the survival of lettuce, because of the coattails effect and the importance of private preservation. Much of the lettuce coverage has to do with mesclun replacing iceberg, with a strong emphasis on aesthetics and variety over story and origins. Overall, popular writing about lettuce is short on emotional content or cultural narrative, other than an occasional mention of the eighteenth-century taste for salads. But lettuce has had great commercial success. Heirloom lettuce became part of an economic niche, profitable to grow and sell to restaurants or for a premium at farmers’ markets. It is certainly not the only produce lacking emotional narrative in public discourse. Pumpkins, for example, receive frequent mentions but are almost never called by their variety name, and almost no storytelling accompanies their coverage.
I was surprised by the references to heirloom beets, even though they still pale compared with the coverage of tomatoes (a mere ninety-seven mentions of heirloom beets in the same time period, for ex-ample). In 2000, Marian Burros wrote in the New York Times, “Beets are following the fashionable pattern of purple potatoes, heirloom tomatoes and golden raspberries. These heirloom varieties, long lost in the quest for standardized fruits and vegetables, until small farmers began growing them again, have helped make the beets more appealing, and not one of them has ever seen the inside of a can.” Almost all references to beets occur on restaurant menus, and very little in the way of stories is attached to them. Occasionally the names or colors get mentioned: “Italian heirloom beets”; Bull’s Blood; MacGregor’s Favorite (in a gardening context); “some golden, some candy-striped”; “Chioggia beet: An heirloom beet with red and white rings in its interior” (this description appears in an article titled “Food Mysteries Solved,” one of many, many references to heirlooms as something new and exotic rather than traditional and familiar); “Chioggia is an Italian heirloom beet.” Mostly they are simply “heirloom beets,” with all this term seems to promise: flavor, color, rarity, authenticity, exoticism, good taste on the part of the chef and the restaurant patron? A specific name is mentioned only a few times, and there is not a single origin story. In the context of newspapers, the story of beets turns out to be irrelevant, other than the general story contained in the word “heirloom,” which somehow elevates these beets above their (industrial, mass-produced?) brethren. Here “heirloom” both confers cultural cachet and is a tool of advertising, a necessary element for the menu of an upscale restaurant. Discussion of biodiversity was a consistent omission in newspaper writing on heirloom food. The word “heirloom” becomes a resonant stand-in for all kinds of specific history.
Turnips are in many ways emblematic of “forgotten” heirlooms. Only a handful of newspaper articles refer to them, including a couple of restaurant reviews, one describing a soup, “served in white espresso cups . . . a puree of hoekurai, an heirloom turnip,” and another mentioning a roasted heirloom turnip and pear gratin. That said, there are people who fervently appreciate turnips. A small town in Vermont organizes an entire festival around a specific turnip variety. Antoine Jacobsohn, an heirloom vegetable expert living in France, recounts how he “really discovered turnips. Turnips are highly variable and very tasty if one doesn’t turn them to mush.” He even has a favorite turnip from a particular farmer in a particular French suburb. We get glimpses into the importance of turnips in the lives and diets of particular chefs, communities, or the characters created by famous authors. Christopher Stocks quotes Mark Twain: “On rainy days he sat and talked hours together with his mother about turnips. When company came, he made it his loving duty to put aside everything else and converse with them all day long of his great joy in the turnip.”
Stocks writes that “without the Spanish Inquisition our carrots might never have been orange, while the French Revolution was at least partly responsible for the triumph of British strawberries in the nineteenth century. Even the humblest root crops have their claims to fame: beetroot, for example, is in part responsible for the abolition of slavery, while swedes [a type of turnip] helped lay the foundations for the Industrial Revolution. “The familiar, homey, even pedestrian carrot has a dramatic history. Carrots appear in considerable numbers in newspaper writing, but with almost no indication of their long journey from their origin in Afghanistan (where they were purple and yellow) and the fact that today’s orange carrots descend from carrots grown by refugee Mennonites goes unmentioned. At a farmers’ market in Vienna I bought ur-Karrotten, supposedly the original carrots, whose blood-red centers turned my soup a disconcerting pink. Much of the carrot story vanishes as heirloom carrots hitch a ride with heirloom tomatoes. The first mention I found of heirloom carrots was in the Boston Globe in 1997, offering suggestions about what to plant in a home garden. Although more popular than the turnip, the carrot, too, has so far failed to really take off as an heirloom in popular culture, nor do its origin stories figure significantly in this popular coverage.
Eggplants are one of the few Asian vegetables that feature as heir- looms, although still almost always without a backstory. Coverage of them in the media, while surprisingly frequent, seemed to be about shape and color rather than either origin or, say, unique heirloom flavor. GQ instructs its gentlemen readers: “That little weedy patch behind your apartment doesn’t have to look like a jungle or junkyard. With as little as 500 square feet, you can grow all sorts of coveted produce- aisle specialties—exotic hot peppers, striped heirloom eggplants, even asparagus.” But despite the occasional article with a title like “Learn More about Fascinating Eggplant!,” there doesn’t seem to be much passion for the heirloom eggplant. Heirloom radishes are mentioned more than other vegetables, but almost always in restaurant reviews, and in one case used as an example of frivolousness: “According to [Alice] Waters and her sprouting acolytes, growing heirloom radishes on the White House lawn will help address issues as diverse as obesity, teen diabetes, and global warming.” Lizzie Collingham’s history of curry recounts how many of the British in the early days of colonialism disliked a lot of Indian vegetables, like eggplant. “The British in India never really took to Indian fruit and vegetables. ‘I have often wished for a few good apples and pears in preference to all the different kinds of fruits that Bengal produces,’ wrote a homesick accountant from Calcutta in 1783. The Anglo-Indians thought that aubergines and okra tasted slimy and unpleasant. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier described how the East India merchants at all the seventeenth-century European factories planted extensive kitchen gardens with vegetables familiar to them from home, such as ‘salads of several kinds, cabbages, asparagus, peas and principally beans, the seed of which comes from Japan.’”
The cucumber’s origins are called out here and there, but it too falls into this B-list of vegetables. There is a very early mention of heirloom cucumbers, in 1988, in an article discussing heirlooms more broadly. Another article describes “some grand heirloom cucumbers with romantic names—Boothby’s Blond from Maine, West India Burr Gherkin, Armenian Yard Long and Crystal Apple White Spine Cucumber.” This article also cites Weaver and the cucumber’s origins in Asia, as well as its popularity among ancient Greeks and Romans. But that’s about it for discussions of the cultural backstory of cucumbers, whose ancestors appear to have been wild cucumbers in the Himalayan foothills. Beets and other heirloom vegetables are also used, here and there, to pillory overly precious trends. By 1998 GQ (which seems to be oddly concerned with heirloom produce) had already listed heirloom vegetables as one of the most overrated concepts of the year. By 2010 another reporter could write that “funky health-food stores evolved into the designer supermarket Whole Foods. Ciabatta trickled down from Chez Panisse to Jack in the Box. And now, everywhere you look, stylish, discerning rebels . . . drink small-batch vodka infused with heirloom beets at underground farmers markets. They wear limited edition blue jeans made in historic North Carolina denim mills using vintage shuttle looms.” These heirlooms become emblematic of tastes that are fancy, and even excessive: “And in an upscale take on the salad bar, diners can build their own. You grab one of the little pencils on the table and mark up to 10 items on a sheet listing 35 ingredients, among them Dungeness crab, toasted pine nuts, Point Reyes blue cheese, heirloom endive, wild arugula and so on.” For vegetable after vegetable, in certain contexts “heirloom” becomes a truncated reference to something desirable or even over the top, only rarely filling in even a particular variety, not to mention a place or a story. There are a host of vegetables that receive almost no mention in the popular press. Garlic’s origins and background, for example, receive little attention despite its immense popularity. As one journalist writes, “Everybody knows about heirloom tomatoes and apples, the historic varieties that have endured for decades or even centuries in garden plots and back yards. But heirloom garlic?”
There is very little on heirloom broccoli, despite the widespread popularity of broccoli in its non-heirloom form. Broccoli’s “origins are lost to history,” according to one article, a statement that applies to much of the vegetable world; but it was grown by the Romans and grown in North America in the eighteenth century. Even vegetables that are comparatively popular in their non-heirloom form garner relatively little media coverage—broccoli, peas, or cauliflower come up short when measured against tomatoes or apples.
Thus most of the world’s vegetables do not appear in popular writing about heirloom vegetables in the United States. There is hardly any discussion of heirloom peas, either dried or fresh—just a handful of articles, mostly about gardening, with very little social or cultural significance attached. Here and there they find their way into the media and into farmers’ markets. The New York Times reported in 2000: “Heirloom tomatoes, apples, beans and potatoes have become almost commonplace in farmers’ markets, but this is the first year in which peas have become consistently available in varieties that were grown de- cades ago, before crossbreeding for long shelf life and truck travel led to vegetables that were more sturdy than sweet and flavorful.”
Despite the widespread popularity of non-heirloom spinach, there is also basically nothing in the media on heirloom spinach, other than a couple of mentions of restaurants. Heirloom collards and okra were each mentioned only a few times, despite the centrality of these foods to soul food, Cajun, Gullah, and other cuisines.
Indeed, what popular food writing, both books and articles, tends to classify as “heirloom” is generally a much narrower range of food than would fit the standard definition (varieties that are open-pollinated, developed before World War II, and possess some kind of meaning and story). Much of this writing targets audiences that are predominantly (though certainly not exclusively) white and relatively affluent. The list in newspaper food writing of vegetables with few or no mentions in their heirloom state is long (and incomplete): Brussels sprouts, cassava, celeriac, celery, chard, chickpeas (one of the first cultivated crops), chicory, Chinese cabbage, cowpeas, endive, fennel, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, leeks, mâche (as “heirloom mâche”), mustard greens, parsley, parsnips, rutabagas, salsify, scorzonera, tomatillos, and yams received little or no mention as heirlooms. I developed the list of searchable vegetables by looking at heirloom vegetable books and seed catalogs, food encyclopedias, and stacks of garden books and cookbooks about heirloom food. But these sources omit much of the world’s vegetable riches.
Many tropical and Asian vegetables seem to fall outside the language of heirlooms, yet what constitutes heirloom produce for Hmong farmers in Minnesota, for example? The concept of heirloom produce has very specific geographical and historical boundaries, which I think can and should be expanded. Just because a vegetable dates back to the era before industrial agriculture does not mean it will inevitably be labeled an heirloom. The term “heirloom” seems, at least in popular media in the United States, to get attached most frequently to fruits and vegetables associated with European and, to a lesser degree, African American and Native American communities and traditions. Asian and Mexican vegetables rarely receive the label, nor does anything from tropical latitudes, and the limits of the terms help us think about culture, including boundaries and identities. I call this chapter “Forgotten Turnips” not so much because heirloom turnips are at such great risk of disappearing forever, but because the patterns with which they appear in media coverage, restaurants, and markets tell us that the heirloom label alone is not enough to catapult them to popularity.