Thursday, January 25, 2007

Modern Times Taste Bad

As winter finally descends on the freshly wind chapped suburbs and hopelessness hangs heavy in the air threatening to settle amongst those who love to work the earth, through the symmetry of nature and the ingenious ways of marketers, a ray of light arrives. It’s in the mailbox. It’s made of paper. Something seedy this way comes. Yes, the farm catalogs have arrived!

Not to get to gardeny on you, I promise not to talk about arrangements of ferns and such, but ever since I learned of an effort under way in the former Iron Curtain countries to save the quickly disappearing genetic diversity in plant varieties (particularly the tasty kinds) I have been fascinated and occasionally obsessed with seeds. There are amazing, scrumptious, gorgeous plants, fruits and vegetables out there that need to be saved – Amen! And there are many at work in the U.S. and across the world now saving seeds. Forget the lame supermarket stuff (you knew that), but also get beyond the heirlooms at most high end restaurants; it’s bigger than that.

1,518 unique varieties of tomatoes! 186 different kinds of watermelons. 127 types of carrots. That is just the start for what’s available through the Seed Savers Exchange. At Heritage Farm, the group grows 24,000 varieties of heirloom vegetables. As I start to select which plants I will grow in my garden come spring, I am once again taken by the open pollinated varieties available. Open pollinated? Oh yes, OP.

Open pollinated plants are varieties that will reproduce true to their parents. Unlike hybrids, which are the result of crossing two different parents and the offspring of which will be something very different containing “break-out” features of each of its parent’s genomes, OP plants can be reproduced generation after generation in the same form as their parents so long as both parents are of the same OP variety. Heirloom vegetables and flowers are open pollinated varieties that date back to previous generations (of gardeners – and plants). With heirlooms, adventurous gardeners can try out the same tomatoes as were eaten during the Civil War, taste the apples Thomas Jefferson cultivated at Monticello and eat squash favored by Native American tribes. Or you can make a new heirloom by crossing two OP varieties and “stabilizing” the cross (and keeping them for a long time). Stabilizing involves creating enough generations of the crossed variety that all variables are expressed and remain constant.

I highly recommend experimenting with heirloom OP varieties. They tend to be more delicious than hybrids because the varieties date back to a time before breeding was done for reasons other than taste (like how long they would last in a supermarket display or how many could be packed into an airplane cargo hold). Modern Times taste bad. Sepia tastes bad too; but ole time flavor hits the spot. Many heirlooms were bred and maintained for taste. And taste you will find.

The most popular heirloom vegetable is the Brandywine tomato. Like all things popular, the Brandywine name is used to mean a lot of different things. What’s the true Brandywine? Well, what’s a true “prophet” or a real “Democrat?” No one really knows but I find the Sudduth’s Strain of Brandywine to be the very finest Brandwine. According to the Seed Savers, Brandywine “first appeared in the 1889 catalog of Johnson & Stokes of Philadelphia and by 1902 was also offered by four additional seed companies.” The Sudduth’s strain “was obtained by tomato collector Ben Quisenberry of Big Tomato Gardens in 1980 from Dorris Sudduth Hill whose family grew them for 80 years.” According to my calculations that puts the strain’s use by the Sudduth family beginning at around 1900. It’s a darn good To – Mater. It is large, unevenly shaped, pink-ish red and meaty but moist. When you first bite into a Brandywine you taste the slightly citric, hushed sweetness and true old time tomato flavor. But then there is a second flush – deep flavor that is sensed at the back of the mouth and tongue; something more complex and almost earthy; it completes the taste sensation, lending a fullness; it is lush-ess.

Seed Savers can be found at Another terrific source for heirlooms from around the world is, aka Baker’s Creek Seeds. Make history, taste history. Grow em!

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