Dear Foodie: What are Heirloom Seeds?

Dear Foodie,

I recently inherited an armoire from my grandmother. It had been in my family for generations and is considered an heirloom. But, here is my confusion. On a recent episode of Food News and Chews, you featured an heirloom tomato grower whose name was Bill Best. Just when he was explaining what “heirloom” tomatoes are, my husband asked me to get him a beer. After returning to the show (and after dumping the beer on his head), you and Chef Jeremy had moved on. What is an heirloom tomato – wouldn’t this mean it is too old to eat? – Seedless

Dear Seedless in Seattle…well, wherever (could not resist),

Or, should I say “Clueless in Cleveland”? I’ll stop. Yours is actually a common question and I’m happy to have an opportunity to explain it again. Heirloom tomatoes are grown from “heirloom” seeds (wait before you say “duh”). Think of them as tiny versions of your heirloom dresser. And, while your dresser cannot reproduce, your heirloom seeds can. They are handed down in families and as a part of the local food movement are increasingly the subject of “seed swaps” (healthier than those other kinds of swaps but perhaps not as much fun) where people come together to swap and trade seeds! What are known as conventional seeds are what you buy in the spring. They are mass produced, may be genetically altered to fight disease and also altered so that their progeny likely will not produce seeds that you can plant next year (do you see a conspiracy here? Answer: You have to buy new seeds each year). They are obviously ok in that they grow good food, however. But, tomatoes, beans and such grown from the heirlooms are said to be juicier and tastier even if a bit rough looking and globby on the outside. For a better explanation, go to Amazon and buy Bill Best’s book available on Amazon: “Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste.” Also, provides an excellent explanation of the difference in conventional, organic and heirloom seeds. All of this heirloom talk is a part of the local food movement and pays homage to something we seem to have lost along the industrial way – family tradition.

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