Take your hat off to the Heirlooms

An Heirloom Tomato?  What’s that?  What’s an heirloom?  And why do some of your tomatoes look so funny?

Well, ya see, if I was your grandfather, I’d sit you on my lap and tell you about when I was a boy.  Once upon a time, before the industrialization of agriculture, everyone had large gardens, and most people saved their seeds or traded for them to plant in their gardens.  Corn was calicle, or multi-colored and the kernels were sometimes shaped funny.  Carrots weren’t always perfectly long and straight, all beets weren’t just dark red and tomatoes weren’t always perfectly round and bright red.

Heirlooms are open pollinated varieties and you can typically save your seed from those plants.  When a farmer learns to save their seed, their seed will evolve to perform best in that environment, acclimating itself to that particular soil’s chemistry and “learning” to defend itself against that area’s pests and new or old diseases that inevitably arise.  Heirloom varieties are typically superior in flavor and nutritional value because of their excellence in being able to extract what it needs to grow to it’s every potential with so many hundreds of year ‘experience in the field’.

I very recently finished reading the Botany of Desire, one of Michael Pollen’s earlier books.  I found that in his section of the book where he discusses potato varieties, he describes exactly why saving so many different kinds of potato seed is so important, rather than selecting a single hybridized variety and mass producing it across an entire country, and why that can be devastating.  If the potato varieties that were planted all across Italy had been 50 different varieties of saved seed from generations handed down like they originally cultivated, the disease that wiped out all of Italy’s potatoes that caused starvation for those three consecutive years and extremely difficult times,  would simply not have occurred.

Hybridization is natural also, it happens all the time in nature when two different varieties of the same species cross pollinate, you’ll get an offspring that is different from it’s parents.  I’m no geneticist, and it would be fun to have a geneticist (or a biologist) really explain this to us, but the new offspring that you get from the second generation of plants will usually be a weaker, less hardy variety.  The majority of the varieties, and I would dare to say nearly ALL of the varieties of vegetables that you buy at a regular grocery store are hybridized vegetables, unless it’s a specialty item that is advertised at being heirloom.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find heirloom varieties.

The reason all the heirlooms got kicked off the shelf is because heirlooms didn’t evolve to sit on shelves; simply put.  Heirloom varieties are in-consistent in shape, color, size, and the times in which they mature to be ready to harvest from the fields.  And inconsistency is exactly what grocery buyers do NOT want.  Produce buyers in a grocery stores want a large volumes of fruits or vegetable that looks the exact same and  have sacrificed image for flavor and vine-ripened for the ability to sit on a grocery store’s refrigerated shelves for weeks without going bad.  This is why hybridizations of vegetable seed varieties has taken off so well.  And it appears to be a good thing, but unfortunately flavor and nutritional superiority was left behind in the race to see who matures the quickest.  Quantity is put before quality.

 But not us, we put quality first!  Yep, we grow heirlooms anytime that we can, and as we gain experience ourselves as growers, we continue to experiment each year with more and more varieties of heirloom vegetable seeds.  A few items that we do grow that are heirlooms, for example are, and I will list their variety names as well to show how beautiful even their names can be:  palla di fuocco radicchio, tescano (as in from Tuscany, also known as lacinato) kale, borretana cippolini onions (also sounds Italian to me???), brandywine heirloom tomatoes, Cherokee purple tomatoes, a new variety of cabbage that we are trying this year called January King with purple veins that grow thru it, our garlic and shallots are from seeds that I would call heirlooms by now as we have been saving their seed for 4 years.

One last, crucially important and  beautiful thing about heirlooms is that the farmer can save their seeds.  There is an art to learning how to save seeds, but something that can be understood.  Every year all farmer’s, unless they’re wise and grow heirloom varieties and save their seed, must buy their hybrid seeds every year from a seed catalog.  You can’t save your seeds from a hybrid because you won’t get the exact same vegetable to grow again the following year, just some dwarfed image of it.  Luckily, there are small scale gardeners all over the world saving their seeds and replenishing them by actually planting them and actually liking to eat the foods that grow from them.

So….WHAT’S in the BOX???

Carrots-  Yeah, beets again!  The tops are edible.  If you plan on using them, cut them off and place them in a separate bag.  The beet roots will store best in a plastic bag in the refrigerator with their tops cut off.

Onions–These are small little gourmet French onions.  They’re like onions, but a little less spicy.  Does not need refrigeration.  Store out of direct sunlight in a cool place.

Yukon Gold Potatoes— Perfectly sized cabbages.  Will store best in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Green, yellow or Purple Beans-  The beans are waning fast now.  Probably a much smaller quantity of beans next week.  Have you had enough yet. 

Green Peppers-  Beautiful blocky peppers.  We get a little better at growing these every year!

Hot Peppers-  Be on the look out for those small but feisty jalapeno’s and Hungarian hot wax peppers.  

Summer Squash, Zucchini, Patty Pan-  Still trickling in, but also slowing down now.

Swiss Chard-  The return of the leafy greens.  Stores best in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Cherry Tomatoes and/or Tomatoes!-  The cherry tomatoes are supposed to be orange.  Do not wait for them to turn red!  You may have also received heirloom tomatoes (abnormal shaping and scarring, these are great to eat, don’t judge them by their appearance).  Do not refrigerated tomatoes for peak flavor.  If they need further ripening, just let them sit on the kitchen counter for a day or two.  It doesn’t take long with these varieties not chosen for shelf life.

Eggplant-  Some members received eggplant this week.  Stores best in a plastic bag in refrigerator. 

Garlic-  Still more garlic to feed to you.  Don’t worry, it will store for long after CSA is over and you’re craving warming foods.  Store in a cooler dark place, but does not need refrigeration.

Next week!  A short list of items that we may have next week, but will not promise to have.  Due to the unexpectedness of the season, anything could pop up or go down hill in no time.  Beets, Cabbage,  Kale, Parsley, Eggplants, Tomatoes, Peppers,  Green Beans, onions