Published June 19, 2013 - Last Updated January 22, 2021
Like most Americans, I grew up eating plain old red tomatoes (romas, beefsteaks, cherry tomatoes, etc.). In college, when I became more adventurous in the kitchen, I discovered heirloom tomatoes—those oddly shaped, dimpled tomatoes that come in a rainbow of hues. From purple to yellow to brown to green, each heirloom has its own unique flavor and texture. Their flavor is far superior to the bland grocery store tomatoes I grew up with. When made into this fresh Heirloom Tomato Salsa Fresca, their natural sweetness shines.
Only recently have I discovered why heirlooms taste so amazing… and, not surprisingly, I found the answer in food history. Before seeds were sold by merchants or through catalogues, families saved and replanted seeds from one crop to the next. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are plant varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation, cultivated from original seeds that are over 100 years old. To be considered a true heirloom, the plant must have been introduced prior to 1951, when plant breeders began to hybridize inbred plant lines. The plant must also be open pollinated in a natural way– by insects, birds, wind or weather. Popular heirloom foods include squash, beets, beans, apples, corn, lettuce—and, of course, tomatoes.
European colonization of the New World brought a number of new plant species to North America. According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, “People emigrating from the Old World, including Africa, as far back as the 16th century, brought seeds with them to America. When the seeds were planted, many of them were able to adapt to the new weather and soil conditions. These hardy species brought considerable genetic diversity to the New World.” The plants naturally adapted to their new environment over the centuries, becoming resistant to extreme weather and other difficult growing conditions. Heirlooms are the direct descendants of these original seeds, and because of this they are uniquely resilient plants.
Experimenting with and cultivating heirlooms has been a popular pastime for centuries. Even Thomas Jefferson was a fan; he grew heirlooms at his Monticello plantation. In his 1,000-foot long garden terrace, Jefferson tended a number of heirloom varieties, taking meticulous notes on the growth and cultivation of each species in his Garden Kalendar. He used heirloom gardening techniques to selectively weed out the inferior vegetable varieties. As he noted in his garden book: “I am curious to select one or two of the best species or variety of every garden vegetable, and to reject all others from the garden to avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy.” Jefferson was successful in many of his gardening experiments; in fact, today you can purchase heirloom seeds that Jefferson himself cultivated directly from Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello
Today, heirlooms are prized not only for their interesting colors and shapes, but for their natural genetic variation. In the past century, produce seeds have been widely genetically modified for commercial farms. Today, most vegetables you see at the grocery store are grown from genetically modified seeds. Vegetable and fruit species are genetically altered to create specific traits– drought and frost resistance, tolerance of pesticides, and the ability to withstand long shipping periods. Flavor is often sacrificed in favor of other genetically desirable traits. You’ve probably experienced this yourself– if you’ve tasted a tomato from the grocery store that appeared ripe and found it bland/flavorless, it was likely grown from a genetically modified seed.
In weeding out inferior plant varieties (as Jefferson did), cross pollination and selective breeding, humans have been naturally modifying seeds for thousands of years. With genetically modified plants, these changes are made rapidly through the use of chemicals or radiation to create a a man-made mutation at the seed level. Because of this scientific manipulation of a natural product, many groups oppose genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).
There are arguments to both sides of genetic modification in farming. On one hand, the science has helped farmers to grow food on a much larger scale, making it easier to cultivate and distribute food to a growing world population. On the other hand, changing the DNA of natural seeds may have unforeseen, unintended health consequences for consumers down the road. In addition, the more these genetically modified vegetables are cultivated, the less biodiversity there is, and the more we become dependent on large corporations (who own the patents to the genetically modified seeds) for our food. This means that heirloom vegetables and fruits don’t just taste better, they’re better for the environment and biodiversity. Heirloom enthusiasts cultivate these unique varieties in hopes of preserving them for future generations.
Heirloom tomatoes have gained popularity in recent years, and are now more readily available than they once were. Because of their terrific flavor, you can experiment with substituting heirlooms for regular tomatoes in your favorite dishes. In this recipe, I’ve added them to salsa fresca to create a healthy and tasty garden-fresh dip. Grilled corn adds smoky sweetness to the mix while avocado adds richness. Serve with tortilla or corn chips as an appetizer, or use this chunky salsa to top freshly grilled fish. It’s a delicious heirloom tomato twist on salsa fresca.
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Thanks for stopping by! I am fascinated by the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Read more...