On so-called “heirloom” vegetables

Heirloom tomatoes

The closest thing we have to an heirloom in the Tilley family is a pocket watch that has passed from generation to generation on my father’s side.  I’m not sure how I would feel if it I stood to inherit a tomato instead.

You may have noticed the term “heirloom” or “heritage” cropping up on menus and in market stalls with increasing frequency (often, though not exclusively, in relation to tomatoes – such as “heirloom tomato salad”).  At first I thought this was your normal bougie foodie freer-range-than thou upselling, but it turns out that an heirloom plant is an actual thing in the farming world, and this causes me some degree of concern, which I am ventilating today.

It seems to me there are 3 problems.

First, upon looking into the matter further it turns out that there isn’t actually any consensus on what qualifies something to be an “heirloom” in the first place (a bit like “super-food”, or “therapist” for that matter).  The basic requirement is that it be open-pollinated (i.e. by the birds and the bees), but beyond that there is a difference between, for example, strains of plant that have literally been passed from generation to generation on the one hand, and the cultivation of “old” varieties on the other, or even “commercial” heirlooms, i.e. the commercial cultivation of niche varieties, if you have a third hand.  So it is impossible to say what you are actually getting.  Even if there were consensus, it’s still not a particularly helpful term from a consumer’s point of view.  “Heirloom” or “heritage” does not denote a particular cultivar of vegetable.  You could just as easily be talking about the Green Zebra (which is green and striped) as the Three Sisters (which comes in three different shapes), the Polish Giant (a carnivorous variety that eats pierogi) or the Zapotec Pleated (which is self explanatory).

An heirloom dog.

Secondly, it purports to claim the moral high ground, or impose a stamp of superiority on the food that is not necessarily justified.  Heirloom varieties do not necessarily taste better, although they often do.  They are certainly knobblier and more varied in flavour, texture and appearance than the bog standard commercial varieties you find in the supermarket, and I encourage you to seek them out for that reason alone.  But they are not superior across the board.  Commercial varieties have been bred to be resilient, for obvious reasons.  Heritage plants are basically the pedigree dogs of the vegetable world and while we all enjoyed watching Elizabeth win Crufts this year, everyone knows that pedigree dogs run the serious risk of being dopey inbreds, and likewise with tomatoes, heritage varieties are reputed to be thin skinned, prone to infection and otherwise generally as vulnerable as we might expect from genetically underevolved plants.

Thirdly, it is just a dreadful word.  It makes you think of grandfather clocks or silver spoons, not salad vegetables.  It’s prone to make people think the whole idea is preposterous when it’s not really.  A properly good tag word would help people realise that there is more to tomatoes than adding filler to a ham and cheese sandwich, without making them feel like they’re ordering something idiotic.  Unfortunately  I can’t really think of a better word (bumpy? blotchy? They all sound unduly pejorative).  Maybe we should make one up.  Send in your entries.

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3 Responses to On so-called “heirloom” vegetables

  1. Adam D'Souza says:

    How about “heritage varieties” or even genetic archaeology”?
    If you delight in English pastoral music, you may like that the elegiac composer Gerald Finzi was, in his time, better known for preserving traditional cultivars of apples than his music.

  2. Michael Wahren says:

    Heirloom or Heritage or what ever you care to call them are certainly not the pedigree dog of the vegetable world. They are the heritage of generations of vegetable growers. They are in effect our inheritance from past generations and thus beyond mere monetary value. In this world of GMO and life patents they are (the seeds there of) the most important vegetable asset in the world. They are often (this from many years of growing) easy to grow, pest resistant, high yielding and more often than not superior in flavour. The corn heritage of Mexico, now threatened thanks to NAFTA is a great example of the importance.
    To finish positively, great blog and some fine recipes.

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