Edible Heirlooms: Old-Fashioned Fruits and Veggies Return to the Table
by Avery Mack
Of the 7,500 varieties of apples in the world, 2,500 are grown in the U.S., but only 100 commercially. As of the 1990s, 70 percent were Red Delicious; more recently they’re being replaced with Gala, Granny Smith and Fuji types from taller, thinner trees that can be planted more compactly for easier harvesting, yet are more sensitive to disease and require trellis supports.
Mass-produced fruits and vegetables have been modified over the years to make them look appealing and ship well, while sacrificing taste. Consumers in search of health-enhancing nutrients and robust flavor can find them by connecting with the past through food and flowers.
“Heirloom seeds have remained intact and unexposed to commercial pesticides,” says Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Seed Company, in Mansfield, Missouri. “They’re reliable—plants grown now will be the same next year; not so with hybrids.” This cleaner, tastier alternative to the status quo is typically packed with more good vitamins than good looks. Heirloom produce often also delivers a unique regional flavor such as Vidalia onions or Hatch chile peppers.
Fine dining restaurants like to feature Yellow Wonder wild strawberries because they taste like cream. The fragrant Baron von Solemacher strawberry, an antique German Alpine variety, is small and sweet, red and full of flavor; it’s been around since the Stone Age. For pies and preserves, pair them with Victorian rhubarb, which dates back to 1856. Eat only the rhubarb stalks; the leaves contain poisonous oxalic acid.
Aunt Molly’s ground cherry (husk tomato) hails from Poland. “It’s sweet, with a hint of tart, like pineapple-apricot,” says Gettle. “The Amish and Germans use them in pies. Their high pectin content makes them good for preserves. Heirlooms send people in search of old recipes and they end up creating their own variations. It’s food as history.”
Trending this year are purple veggies like the brilliantly colored Pusa Jamuni radish. Pair it with bright pink Pusa Gulabi radishes, high in carotenoids and anthocyanins, atop a stunning salad with Amsterdam prickly-seeded spinach’s arrow-shaped leaves, a variety once grown by Thomas Jefferson. Add a fennel-like flavor with Pink Plume celery.
Brighten salsas using the Buena Mulata hot pepper, a deep violet that ripens to a sweet red. Serve with pink pleated Mushroom Basket tomatoes or Lucid Gems, with their black/orange peel and striking yellow/orange flesh. Purple tomatillos are sweeter than green varieties and can be eaten right off the plant.
“Purple sweet potatoes are found in Hawaii, but aren’t common on the mainland,” explains Gettle. “Molokai Purple sweet potatoes keep their deep purple color even when cooked and are much higher in antioxidants than the orange variety.” To be novel, serve the Albino beet. Baker Creek’s customers use it raw in salads, roasted or fried and don’t let the greens go to waste.
Monique Prince, a clinical social worker in Chester, New Hampshire, grows heirloom organic radishes, greens, herb, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and pumpkins in eight raised beds.
She received Ganisisikuk pole beans (7th generation seeds) and Abnaki cranberry runner beans from a Native American client. Rather than eat the bounty, she’s accumulating the seeds to save the varieties.
Thai basil loves summer heat. Make batches of pesto, then freeze it in ice cube trays for later. Christina Major, a nutritionist in Trevorton, Pennsylvania, grows heirloom herbs including borage, with its edible flowers, and marshmallow, which is a decongestant when added to tea. Her 300-square-foot garden supplies summer veggies such as scarlet runner beans, more than 50 kinds of perennial herbs for year-round use and heirloom raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries “that are eaten as fast as they’re picked,” she says.
Enthusiasts like to exchange seeds to try new varieties. “From December to March, traders swap seeds and plot their gardens,” says Major. “I got 20 kinds of tomatoes by connecting with other traders on Facebook.”
Of 400,000 flowering plants in the world, 20 percent are in danger of extinction. “Instead of marigolds and petunias, consider old-fashioned annuals. Trying new things is fun,” says Gettle. Four O’clocks, familiar to many Midwesterners, come in a several colors and are easily cultivated from their abundant seeds. The succulent Ice plant with its white-pink flowers looks like it was dipped in sugar; its edible leaves taste like spinach. Black Swan’s burgundy poppies have a frill-like edge, while Mother of Pearl poppies offer subtle watercolors.
“Save seeds, share with neighbors and pass them on to the kids,” advises Gettle. “They’re evidence of our culture.”
Connect with freelance writer via AveryMack@mindspring.com.