Edible Heirlooms: A Conversation With Bill Thorness
The word "heirloom" has been increasingly used to describe food and not just Aunt Lucy's cameo. But the principle is the same: heirloom foods, in the form of seeds or livestock, are ones kept unadulterated and protected against the worst of modernity. But I'm getting ahead of myself on a subject I'm still learning.
So instead let me introduce you to Bill Thorness. Bill is a writer -- about food, gardens and travel. He's a passionate and knowing gardener. He's a dedicated city cook who lives, gardens and cooks in Seattle. He's been growing heirloom vegetables for two decades. And he is the author of a new, splendid book called Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables for the Maritime Garden (2009 Mountaineers Books, paperback, $18.95).
I turned to Bill when I was finding myself using the word "heirloom" with more familiarity than wisdom. Seeing the term thrown around in our markets, I thought we all might want to know more. Bill's garden may be on the west coast but his knowledge applies to any garden (urban or not) and any kitchen, including how heirloom vegetables protect our entire food supply.
The City Cook: "Let's start with some definitions. What is an edible heirloom?
Bill Thorness: Sure. First, let me say thanks for inviting me to this conversation. I love your site.
Heirloom vegetables are varieties that have been passed down over generations. Most definitions say they should be at least 50 years old. For my book, I also tried to choose varieties that you wouldn’t find at the supermarket. You very well might find these at a farmer’s market or greengrocer, especially if you buy organic from small, local farmers -- for the most part, industrial agriculture isn’t going to have much to do with heirlooms. They’re more interested in hybrid varieties, because many hybrids have been bred (or genetically engineered) for certain marketable characteristics, like shelf life, color or size (or even shape: square tomatoes!). I choose heirlooms, even if the produce might be smaller or more delicate, because of flavor, uniqueness, history and my belief that it’s important to keep these varieties alive.
TCC: In your book you write about the need for heirlooms and biodiversity in the 21st Century. What's the role for the home gardener in protecting our ecosystem?
BT: The need for biodiversity is why I’m so intent on keeping heirlooms alive. Let me give you some context before discussing what we can do: during the 20th century, the U.S. lost 97 percent of its seed diversity; by the mid-1990s, only 3 percent of the varieties cited in the 1900 USDA seed census were available.
Why should we care? Because those few remaining varieties do not present enough diversity to provide a hedge against massive crop failure from a widespread fungus or bacteria, which would bring with it large economic losses. I’m a proponent of farmers not planting huge acreages of one variety, but in fact that’s what they do. If home gardeners only had the same few corn varieties, our plants would be vulnerable to that same disease. Plants have immune systems and respond to different ecological conditions. Some of the old varieties have natural immunities to diseases that might kill another. So if we perpetuate a large number of varieties, we’ll have those choices to fall back on if one crop is decimated. And our puny 3 percent of seed varieties is providing us the only basis for natural breeding to come up with new varieties. That big seed repository deep under the tundra off Norway? They call it the Doomsday Vault because of fear that this will happen.
Home gardeners – and cooks – should care about this because we enjoy the flavors and nutrition brought by a wide variety of vegetables. For instance, I grow DeCiccio broccoli in the summer and Purple-sprouting broccoli in the winter.
Since we can’t rely on traditional agriculture to keep these varieties alive, we home gardeners must do it. We can do it by buying and planting heirloom varieties, to keep those seed companies in business who are selling them. Take it a step further: we can save our own seed from our own plants, replanting it or sharing it with friends or others in seed-saving organizations like Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org) . If you’re not saving seeds, you can support their work with donations.
TCC: Are heirloom vegetables just a trend or is this a true change in how we value our fruits and vegetables?
BT: I hope that a return to heirlooms is like a return to common sense, and it will never go out of style. Only time will tell. One thing I found about the term heirlooms: many of us have been growing and eating heirloom vegetables for years, we just didn’t call them such. I discovered when writing this book that I’d been growing many heirlooms over my 20 years as a gardener, because that was how I was taught, and that was what was being sold by my favorite seed company.
I’m optimistic about the future for heirlooms. I know many gardeners who are truly, madly, deeply in love with their heirlooms, and wouldn’t give them up for anything. They’ve lasted this long because they’re just wonderful veggies, so why give them up now?
TCC: Do heirloom vegetables necessarily taste better or have more nutrients?
BT: I can’t speak to nutrition, because there are so many variables, such as how well the plant is grown, when it’s harvested, or how soon after harvest it’s eaten. I know there have been studies that show organic produce is more nutritious than non-organic, so I urge people to grow organically. Also, you might not need to be so worried about nutrition if you concentrate on keeping toxins like pesticides out of your body.
But, yes, they taste better! Part of this is how they’re grown as well – for instance, a tomato grown in full sun will be more flavorful than one grown in part shade. Vegetables love sun. Beyond that, heirloom varieties have stuck around because they have been the ones people raved about.
There might be two ways to pronounce it - you say tomayto and I say tomahto – but there are literally hundreds of flavors in heirloom tomatoes. Lynne Rosetto Kasper of The Splendid Table once told me she thinks Black Krim tomatoes “have incredible complexity and depth -- the equivalent of an aged Bordeaux: deep and meaty.” (She also told me that she’d kill for an Anasazi bean.) And I recall a New York Times interview with Michelle Obama about the White House kitchen garden where she said, “A real delicious heirloom tomato is one of the sweetest things that you’ll ever eat. And my children know the difference, and that’s how I’ve been able to get them to try different things.”
You know how to really wow your dining companions? Pull the produce straight out of the garden and get it to the table as fast as possible. Do that in combination with serving heirlooms, and you’ll have friends around your table forever!
TCC: While some may assume that city folks don't have gardens, in fact many do. Some grow pots of herbs on fire escapes and balconies but many have vegetable plots in our small front and back yards or we rent a piece of a community garden. So for the city gardener, what do you recommend as a way to begin to grow heirloom vegetables?
BT: I’ve been to some incredible gardens in New York City – those many hundreds of community gardens are fantastic resources. I’ve seen them in Harlem, in the Lower East Side, in Brooklyn . . . and loved the people I’ve met at them. I have a community garden plot in Seattle – here we call them P-Patches. City people without gardens should at least go visit those gardens. Talk to the gardeners and compliment them on their efforts, and pretty soon you’ll have a tasty bit of produce in your hands.
But if you want to start with just one thing, if you have full sun (like 6 hours a day) grow a tomato in a pot. Make it an easy one – cherry tomatoes are the easiest. Yellow pear is a wonderful small tomato, very juicy. And it’s beautiful, pale yellow and shaped like a pear. Make sure you use a big pot, so big you can barely lift it when it’s filled with soil. Get some sticks and string and build a sturdy trellis, because tomatoes are basically vines. Fertilize it a couple of times as the plant is growing, but not after the fruit has started to ripen.
If you have less sun (say, 3-6 hours), try some lettuce. The heirloom lettuce varieties I like best are Forellenschluss (a German variety whose name means “speckled like a trout’s back”), Green Deer Tongue and Black-seeded Simpson. The first is beautiful and tender, the second is hearty, and the third is more delicate and juicy.
TCC: Urban gardeners don't usually have lots of space and your book has hundreds of heirlooms to choose from. How does anyone make a choice?
BT: Some people spend a lot of time planning their garden. It’s a great winter activity when you have the urge to dig in the dirt but it’s freezing out, snowy or mucky. Hopefully the book will help you plan, but there are great seed catalogs that provide lots of information beyond just being a list of seeds. [Try Baker Creek Seeds (rareseeds.com), Territorial Seed Co. (territorialseed.com), or Johnny’s Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com).]
Also, I get together with friends and we have a seed ordering party, where we snack, drink wine and talk about what we want to grow this year, what grew great last year, how much space different plants need, etc. Some people bring food made with last year’s produce. This year I steamed some of my frozen beans and tossed them with pasta with pesto made with our own basil and garlic.
We just had that party last week, and then we placed orders from a few catalogs. We’ll have another event to split up the seeds. Group ordering helps hold down shipping costs, and when we split up the seed packets, we can use more of the seed we get, so less goes to waste. This way, you get to have fresh seeds of new varieties each year!
TCC: It's a big country with lots of climate diversity. Does where you live impact heirloom and heritage food choices?
BT: Yeah, that’s a very interesting thing. Last year I grew Fish pepper, which is an African-American heirloom that was traditionally grown by people enslaved on the plantations. It’s called Fish because it was used to spice up fish stews in the Chesapeake Bay area. It grew pretty well for me here, but I’ve seen the plants grow much bigger in warmer climates.
The Slow Food movement’s Ark of Taste (slowfoodusa.org) is a program that showcases heritage foods from different parts of the country, and Fish pepper is one of them. It’s fascinating where different heirlooms are being grown, which in many ways mirrors our immigration patterns. It also shows where native peoples were living. There is such a rich heritage of Native American food in the Southwest, especially of corn, beans and peppers. The Seeds of Change seed catalog (seedsofchange.com) has probably the best representation of their foods. I visited the SoC trial farm north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and they showed me fields being tended by local tribes in an exchange with the company. The company also grows some high-altitude plants on native land in the hills by their pueblo.
When I chose heirlooms for my book, I focused on vegetables that would grow well in a maritime climate, which has a longer spring and fall and a cooler summer than most places in the U.S. The book could be used by people in hotter climates, where most of the varieties I listed would ripen earlier. Some of the Asian greens I list would not grow well in hot climates with shorter cool seasons.
To figure out what heirlooms would grow well in your garden, talk to local farmers at the farmer’s markets. Ask for their suggestions, too, and try things they can’t grow. I’m a big proponent of supporting the local farmers by buying from them. Grow a few of your best-loved vegetables at home, then go buy in bulk from the pros.
TCC: What's the connection between heirloom vegetables and being a local food activist?
BT: Gee, you ask great questions. I just got off the soapbox about supporting local farmers, but I think there are other natural connections in the community, too.
Heirlooms grown in a particular region have their own qualities – like the terroir in wine grapes – that an heirloom gardener is perpetuating and building upon. That, in itself, is an important reason to keep heirlooms alive. Also keeping that 3 percent of our varieties in circulation, whether growing it ourselves or buying it from professional farmers, strikes a blow for biodiversity, a healthy ecosystem and possible avoidance of hunger problems if those few commercially grown varieties need to dip into the heirloom gene pool in order to stay viable.
The more we gardeners help develop our palates for our regional favorites, the more those flavors and varieties will survive. And we will have an influence on the chefs, too. And the schools, even. I interviewed a teacher once whose school was in a pilot program to use local produce, and she was amazed how much the high school boys loved raw broccoli. No surprise to me -- if it’s fresh, it’s great! That sort of activism is subtle, but could have a great effect on future food policy, land-use, health problems like obesity and diabetes.
TCC: What's the most important advice you give in your book?
BT: Try the old ways. Heirlooms to me are about stories, they’re about perpetuating a way of life, feeding ourselves and living more in concert with nature. Living in a city, it’s so easy to lose sight of those things, but they really are important. An hour in the garden every summer day will feed your soul as well as your body. I embrace high-tech media innovations, cherish my jet-powered vacations to foreign lands, and soak up the diversity of culture offered by city life. But when it comes to food, high-tech and jet travel have not helped (Frankenfoods traveling 1,500 miles), but there is a parallel in diversity and culture for people who love food. Local food with a heritage, basically growing, sourcing and eating it like previous generations did, that’s what resonates with me.
TCC: And for the rest of us who don't have a way to garden, is there advice for us as we buy heirloom vegetables at our farmers' markets?
BT: Ask the farmers what varieties they’re offering. Sometimes they have temporary workers or interns who don’t know, but ask them to find out, then go back the next week and ask again. We need to perpetuate those stories, which start with the names. Instead of a sign that says “field tomatoes” on a pile of those opulent winey, intense tomatoes, I want signs that say Costoluto Genevese, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, and Brandywine.
TCC: What's going to be in your garden this year?
BT: I haven’t grown potatoes in years, but this year I’m going to try a new way. I’ve heard you can grow an amazing amount of potatoes in a 2 foot square box so I’m going to try it (see more info at irisheyesgardenseeds.com/growers1.php) . You build the box taller as the potatoes grow, and you keep adding soil, because potatoes are a plant where part of the stems can be buried and will develop roots (tomatoes are like this too – in fact, they’re both from the same family!). So the potato vines keep reaching higher, you keep adding slats to the side of the box, and when you’re done, you have a square box almost as tall as you are. Then you remove the bottom slat, pull the potatoes out of the soil, replace the slat, and a couple of weeks later remove the next slat up, etc.
Oh, you were probably wondering what I’m going to grow, not how. But trying new things is one of the great parts of gardening – I get jazzed with trying new things. In this box I’m going to grow the Ozette potato, which is perhaps the only variety to come straight from Peru to America. Most potatoes went from Peru to Europe, and then were brought here by immigrants, but the Ozette was brought to the native Makah people on Washington state’s coast by Spanish explorers in the 1700s, and they kept it alive.
It’s a knobby fingerling with yellow flesh, very mild and creamy. I think it’ll be great mashed with some fresh local butter and my Spanish Roja garlic."
Thank you, Bill. And to all you city gardeners, happy planting and growing.