Guest blogger Diane Ott Whealy makes her home in Decorah, Iowa, where she is the cofounder and vice president of education at Seed Savers Exchange. Her new book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, will be released in May 2011. The story chronicles her life of homesteading; nurturing children, gardens, and seeds; and maintaining sanity and a sense of humor while helping grow the largest nongovernmental seed bank of its kind in the country.
And the Oscar for outstanding contribution to our gastronomic happiness goes to (drumroll, please) the heirloom tomato. For those of you who are not familiar with this award, let me explain.
The movie The Kids Are All Right—a personal favorite of mine—was up for four Academy Awards this year. I love the line when Nic, played by Annette Bening, becomes fed up with all the farm-to-table, new organic food hoopla.
“If I hear one more person say how much they love heirloom tomatoes, I’m going to punch them right in the face,” she declares.
Excuse me, but did I just hear heirloom tomato mentioned in a major motion picture? Indeed, the term has almost become a buzzword these days. Even before I saw this movie, I noticed other indicators that heirloom has crept into pop-culture vernacular.
Last August, I was walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago and stopped for lunch at a small bistro. On the menu was an “heirloom tomato salad.” I asked my waiter, “What is an heirloom tomato?” “I really don’t know; I think it is yellow,” he replied. I did not comment. Then later that month on NBC’s Today, Matt Lauer was assisting a guest chef preparing a salad. The chef said, “Now add one pound of chopped tomatoes.” Matt immediately added, “heirloom tomatoes.” I am not saying he knew what an heirloom tomato was, but he made it sound extra special.
So it appears that heirlooms are fashionable, yet that has not always been the case. When Seed Savers Exchange began more than 35 years ago, our early members lamented the fact that few people still seemed interested in collecting and saving seed. It was popular in the ’70s for modern gardeners to grow F1 hybrids. The prevailing sentiment was, Why drive a Model T when you could drive a Cadillac? Our members knew exactly why they should hold on to their Model T seed.
At that time, hybrid seeds replaced the traditional varieties and heirloom seed was becoming extinct. The country was moving away from small gardens in favor of mass-produced crops. At the same time, gardeners began favoring new-and-improved seed. Newly hybridized seed produced tomatoes uniform in size for harvest by machines and shipped across the country. Iowa could now have tomatoes in January—what’s wrong with that? The problem was the quality of such tomatoes paled in comparison to the juicy fruit we all remembered fresh from our grandparents’ gardens.
These family heirloom seeds survived for centuries thanks to amateur gardeners whose main qualifications were that they cared enough about the varieties to save the seeds and pass them down in their families.
Since the 1970s, Seed Savers Exchange members have saved and distributed thousands of old-fashioned seed varieties. In 2011, SSE members offered 13,376 different varieties of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds to fellow gardeners in the annual yearbook. Today, due to this effort and many other concerned gardeners, those seeds are widely available to seed companies, small farmers, local and regional markets, chefs, and home gardeners.
It is quite an achievement for an heirloom tomato unknown in the gardening world some 35 years ago to find its way into a Hollywood movie. We have come a long way, but hopefully heirloom does not become just another fad or meaningless adjective. Even Hollywood recognizes that heirloom tomatoes are beautiful long after the red carpet is rolled up.
Tomato Photo: David Cavagnaro
Photo of Diane: Jim Richardson
Tags: heirloom tomato