This post has updated since it was originally published in 2010.
The term “heirloom” has been bandied about for so long now—heirloom produce, sure, but also heirloom meats, grains, and more—that it’s lost some of its special-ness. But heirloom foods are very special indeed. Not only are they one of the easiest ways to make whatever you’re cooking taste better (this Tomato and Peach Salad with Feta and White Balsamic, for example), some say they’re more nutritious and more sustainable too. So to restore some appreciation for them, let’s review—what’s an heirloom tomato anyway?
An heirloom is basically an “old seed”—and by that I don’t mean a seed that has been rolling around someone’s pocket for a long time. I mean a plant or animal that hasn’t been hybridized for 25, 50, or 100 years, depending on who you ask, making it an un-messed-around-with representation of that particular plant or animal variety.
To which you might reply, what’s so great about that?
Well, hybridization in and of itself isn’t horrible. It’s simply crossing one plant or animal with another and coming up with something that combines characteristics of the two.
The hitch in hybridization
The problem is that most hybridization of the last 25, 50, or even 100 years has been for the benefit of the grower and/or retailer. Tomatoes, for example, have been hybridized to ripen all at the same time, making them easier to pick. They’ve been hybridized to grow to the same size and shape, making them easier to pack, store, and ship. They’ve been hybridized for a longer shelf life. For more even color. Etc, etc, etc.
But for the most part, they haven’t been hybridized to taste better. In fact, you could argue that the flavor has been hybridized right out of them.
Heirlooms, on the other hand, may have been hybridized, but not during the more recent era of hybridization to benefit the producer. So heirloom tomatoes, for example, come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Sometimes they crack or otherwise look funny. They have to be sold soon after picking, because they don’t have a long shelf life. Etc, etc, etc.
But for the most part, they taste—awesome. And the same goes for heirloom peaches, plums, pigs, turkeys, grains, legumes, and more.
Hooray for heirlooms!
I know you know this. But I also know how easy it is to forget what’s become familiar. So I’m reminding you.
Heirlooms are one of the easiest ways to make everything you cook taste better. Buy and eat them a lot. Notice and relish in their full dimension of taste and texture. And remember.
A few recipes you might especially enjoy made with heirloom fruits and vegetables:
Tomato and Peach Salad with Feta and White Balsamic
Simply Good Summer Tomato Salsa
Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup with Crab
Melon and Chile Salad with Lime
Summer Farro Salad
Spinach Salad with Chicken, Strawberries, Blue Cheese, and Almonds
Cornmeal-Crusted Petrale with Tomato-Tarragon Relish
Chicken with Lemon-Lime, Corn, and Jalapeno Relish
Fresh Fruit Parfaits with Raw Sugar and Whipped Crème Fraiche
Buttery, Sweet, Bright, Thoroughly Delicious Plum Cake