- Honestly, Dara -

The Case for Heirloom Produce

Our food columnist discovers the true value of heirloom foods.

illustration of hands planting seeds

When I was growing up in the 1980s, vegetables came wrapped in plastic and city kids like me thought farmers were people mainly encountered in books for preschoolers, standing in front of red barns helpfully teaching them how to spell c-o-w. Then the foodie revolution arrived, perhaps most easily dated to the 1993 debut of the Food Network or the 2000 release of the USDA’s Organic Standards, and everything changed. Suddenly, tomatoes that looked and tasted like Styrofoam were out and tomatoes that looked and tasted like tomatoes were in.

I remember it like it was yesterday: the card table at the farmers’ market that displayed tomatoes with names like Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine, Blondkopfchen, Hungarian Heart, Isis Candy, Mamie Brown’s Pink, Nebraska Wedding, and Trucker’s Favorite Pink. I was happy to pay outrageous prices, because these weren’t just tomatoes; these tasted like hot afternoons in the shade.

It was fun, too, to see the seed savers themselves come out of hiding. For decades, their favorite tomatoes had been degraded as old-fashioned, unproductive pest magnets. They had secretly nurtured them nonetheless.

In Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451, the government is dedicated to burning all the books, but a band of rebels, hiding like hobos in the shadows, preserve copies of classics as best they can. I’m not saying the seed savers were like the heroes in that terrifying dystopia — but in a way, they really were.

Tasting Indigenous Cultures

I’m now mature enough to recognize that my first experiences with heirlooms were mainly motivated by hedonism: the sweetness of a Black Krim, the funny cassis-and-lemon undercurrent in a Matt’s Wild. Over the years, though, my respect for what we call heirlooms has continued to grow as I’ve begun to better understand their role in Native American traditions.

Seed saving is a huge part of indigenous cultures — and I had no idea until I met some of the folks working with tribes to preserve heirloom crops, such as corn, squash, and beans.

Diane Wilson directs Dream of Wild Health, an organization that raises indigenous foods and traditional medicinal garden plants for Native Americans in the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area. Wilson operates a small-urban community garden, where Native youths and families can learn gardening, as well as a 10-acre farm in a nearby suburb. What amazes me about Wilson’s work is the efforts she and her organization must exert to keep their traditional corn traditional.

Corn is wind pollinated, which means its male anthers and female flowers must rely on random breezes to unite them. In the corn belt of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, the air is heavy with corn pollen during pollination season — an existential threat to heirloom varieties. So the folks at Dream of Wild Health bag their corn plants and pollinate them by hand, walking corn anther to corn flower, as it were.

It’s tremendously labor intensive, but worth it because the crop is a living connection to Native tribes’ culture and ancestors. “The collection of seeds we grow are specific to tribes and Native families who have been growing them for many, many generations,” Wilson explains.

“Corn really is a perfect example of a food that was developed by indigenous communities over thousands of years. Our Dakota corn, for instance, has been grown by Dakota families, by the Dakota people, not just for traditional foods but for cultural use in ceremonies.”

At Dream of Wild Health, tribal elders pass these traditions on to new generations. “In pre-contact times, there were prayers, ceremonies, and songs that go along with growing these foods,” she adds. “If you’re growing the foods, you have the opportunity to maintain the cultural practices. If you’re going through the drive-thru for your food, the cultural practices don’t come up.”

For Dakota families, Wilson’s organization grows two varieties of corn every year: One is sweeter, with mixed kernels of cream, lavender, and rose flavors; the other is a yellow corn for flour. For Ojibwa families, the group grows several other varieties of corn, including one they call Bear Island Flint corn. There were probably hundreds of specific corn varieties that Native American tribes once grew in individual microclimates, whether that was in New York or Arizona.

“We did a comparison a couple years ago,” Wilson recalls. “One of our interns made a loaf of cornbread from conventional cornmeal and another from our corn, to taste side by side. We invited a group of elders to taste them, and the flavor was so much richer, so much more intense, so much more flavorful than it is in the commercial varieties — it was a huge difference.”

An even bigger difference comes into play when the corn is planted in a “three sisters” garden with its traditional partners of beans and squash, paired with the songs and lessons associated with the various phases of the garden’s life — from planting to harvest. These plants work together, with corn providing support for the beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil, while the squash shades the roots of the corn.

Over time, the plant, the air, the water, and the night are connected, Wilson explains. “If you think of the plants, the water, the air as relatives, you treat them in a different way. You show respect, you show gratitude, because it’s a relationship that goes two ways: You offer reciprocity for the gifts the earth provides.”

A Millennium of Hands

Dream of Wild Health doesn’t sell its ceremonial, ancestral corn, but other heirloom-seed specialists — including the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange, Missouri’s Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and California’s Trade Winds Fruit — offer other Native American seed varieties. Seed Savers Exchange, for instance, grows the Hidatsa Shield Figure bean, which stars in the celebrated Native gardening memoir Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden. Baker Creek offers a squash, called the Gete ­Okosomin, that’s believed to be a thousand years old. Trade Winds handles Black Aztec corn from the 19th century.

You could plant each of those in a traditional three-sisters arrangement, with the corn in the middle to support the beans, and the squash to block the weeds and keep the soil moist. Then you’d have created an actual living connection to life in North America a thousand years go. You could watch the bees and butterflies flit around your garden and imagine a millennium of hands, planting these seeds, saving them, passing them on — eventually to you.

This originally appeared as “Priceless Inheritance” in the May 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by Claudi Kessels

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