We see a lot of strange terminology on today’s menus across Los Angeles and across the nation, for that matter. Tête de cochon, succulents, lovage, line-caught, confitures: some are unusual ingredients, some are preparatory cooking techniques, and sometimes, they’re designations about the type of food you’re about to eat. Deciphering all this obscure language can be daunting, but with time and perhaps a little Googling, it becomes clear. Furthermore, once you understand what it is you’re reading, you begin to understand the breadth of effort that goes into finding, preparing, and serving you this meal.
Take, for instance, a common, seemingly mainstream term: heirloom. Sure, you’ve seen it scattered across chalkboards at charcuterie restaurants, farmers markets, and even your local grocer’s. Heirloom tomatoes are arguably the most common representation of this term; they’re big, oddly-shaped, multicolored, expensive tomatoes. “What? Four bucks for one tomato? You must be joking. Why?” Well, the price comes from its heirloom designation. Heirloom varieties are plants that are grown from a single, non-hybrid seed. The seed must not been adulterated or cross-pollinated with a different plant. Many gardeners believe that heirloom seeds should be at least 50 years old to be planted. Heirloom varieties are always open-pollinated varieties, which means that the seeds produced from the plant are properly saved and will produce the same variety every year. This is the main advantage of the heirloom seeds because on the other hand you have the hybrid varieties, which are completely different. They cannot be reproduced year after year because the seed produced from those plants will be sterile, lose its hybrid quality, and revert back to its original parent species.
Today, almost all vegetables we see in markets are hybrid-grown. This means that the plant is cross-pollinated with another plant (of either the same species or a different one entirely.) The reasoning behind this is the cross-breeding will create a better, sturdier, more consistent-looking product. This explains why when you go into the produce section at the store, all the Roma tomatoes look nearly identical, and all the butternut squash are the same exact color, shape, and weight. Crazy, right? Don’t you ever go to the farmers market, look around, and think “Gee, how odd? These zucchini are all different shapes and sizes.” Well, it’s because they were grown in the actual earth from a seed and with natural sunlight and normal weather conditions, unlike its hybrid counterpart. This is not to say all hybrid produce is bad—it’s not. I eat hybrid vegetables regularly. But the heirloom varieties have a definite “wow” factor in terms of flavor, appearance, and the respect that comes from understanding the painstaking care in growing them.
Not only can tomatoes be heirloom, but carrots, radishes, wheat, corn, and even beans can be it as well. I love heirloom beans because of their beautiful appearance and variety of colors and sizes. Additionally, carrots (pictured above) are fantastic heirlooms. These carrots have so much character—they’re tender and outrageously vibrant in color and flavor. Shred them into a quinoa salad or a multicolored slaw for a sandwich. Ahh, perfection!
So next time you are skimming the produce section at the grocery store, look a little closer, and seek out heirloom varieties. Plus, now you’ll be the smart kid in class, educating your neighbor cart-pusher on the advantages and specifics of heirlooms. Nice work, smarty pants.
Mendelson, K. (2008, Feb. 20). What is an heirloom vegetable? Retrieved from http://www.halcyon.com/tmend/define.htm