Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Elitism of Heirlooms

Today's Washington Post featured whole section on tomatoes, both the results of their tomato recipe contest and an article about heirloom tomatoes in particular. Timely, given my recent garden update and disappointment at one of my heirloom varieties and total enthusiasm for one of my hybrids.

Heirloom varieties are generally regarded as those that are pre-World War II and are open pollinated. They certainly look different from the more commercial hybrid varieties that are nice red globes, virtually indestructible. Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are often ugly. They are squatty, color streaked, cat-faced, and/or misshapen. The idea is, however, that what they lack in looks, they make up in flavor.

Growing up, I had peripherally heard about heirlooms from cranky old people. But now? Heirlooms are chic. They are pricey. They are Of The Moment. They are the kind of tomato that you would by at Anthropologie, if Anthropologie was a grocery store: folksy, turned fashionable. Much like gardening itself has become recently.

There's also certainly an environmental argument for heirlooms. Preserving the ancestors of tomatoes can ultimately lead to better bio-diversity. Plus, you can save your own seed! Thrifty! And, in a few decades you just might have tomatoes perfectly adapted to your vegetable patch which is very cool.

But, it's my opinion, and that of Ms. Black, that some gardeners/consumers have taken this to the extreme. As I have found out this year with my Wonder Lights, not all heirloom tomatoes are delicious. In fact, due to their rising popularity they are being more commercially produced...something they were not breed to do. And not all hybrids are devoid of flavor (like my darling Sungolds) nor are they a genetically-modified devils. Hybridization can, and does, occur in nature. In fact, heirlooms are really just old hybrids. Genetic modification, on the other hand, is using molecular techniques and not cross-pollination to create a new variety.

As Jay Leno said in an episode of Top Gear about the Prius: "It's about the moral superiority. I'm driving an unattractive car and I am saving the planet. See, in American we like everyone to know the good work we are doing anonymously." Substitute "heirloom tomato" for "car," and I think this also rings true. Right down to the unattractive part.

If you exclusively grow or eat heirloom tomatoes, or any heirloom variety for that matter, this does not make you a superior person. Certainly, seeking out local food sources and different varieties is commendable. Having diversity in your garden is a good thing.

But don't snub a hybrid because it's not an heirloom. That's just like tomato age-ism!

Tell me your favorite variety of tomato. Heirloom or hybrid. What tastes the best and works the best in your garden?

1 comment:

  1. My fave was Sun Gold now Sun Sugar - heirloom and hybrid - I care not as long as the sugar content is high :-)