Show Your True Colours

Author Icon Tawfik Shehata Jun 01 2020

Chef Tawfik Shehata on weird veg, the problem with conformity and the return of heirlooms to our plates and palates.

When wandering the produce section of your local grocer do you ever wonder why all the radishes are only red, round globes? The carrots are long and orange? The tomatoes are a consistent red and perfectly shaped? Like Bigfoot, it’s a rare sighting when you find one of these items in a different colour or (gasp!) a unique shape. Well, what if I let you in on a little secret? Carrots were originally purple. Or, that I used to grow, pick, and serve heirloom tomatoes that were heart shaped? Did you know there are 600 varieties of tomatoes known to exist? Let’s not forget our friend, Swiss Chard which comes in a rainbow of seven colours or that there is a watermelon with a rind mottled with moon and stars.  It begs the question, where has all the colourful produce gone?

Well, to explain, we’ve got to go retro with our roots. To heirlooms.

Heirlooms need not just be jewelry or china. The word implies something of value, either sentimental or financial. Seeds of heirloom vegetables were passed on from generation to generation. These seeds were as historically important to the identity and generational love of families as any other prized possession in a china cabinet. Many of these seeds have travelled in the hearts and minds, pockets and hands, across oceans and lands, of people looking for a new or better life. Many more heirloom seeds have deeper roots to this land, held sacred by our Indigenous Peoples and valued as ceremonial crops.  Imagine that of the few precious items immigrant ancestors could bring with them, they chose seeds to nourish their families in the new world. The family matriarchs, the nanas, tetas, nonnas, grandmas, omas, gigis, bubbies and g-mas must have found great comfort planting and preparing these familiar foods of the old country, as they navigated the new.  Wherever the origins, the purpose of carrying on their heritage through a few familiar plants must have offered some reassurance of tradition. These are vegetables grown for the love of food and families.
Generally speaking, heirlooms are the literal and unmodified descendants of old varieties that have been producing exceptional crops for generations. Heirlooms have endured because people cared enough about their flavour, resistance to disease and growing habits to keep planting them and saving their seeds from one season to the next. These seeds, acclimated to their surroundings, resulted in more genetic diversity. This made plants stronger, better tasting and healthier. Heirlooms have maintained their intrinsic personalities, with varieties that are more unique in shape, colour and texture than hybrids, and will continue to bear fruit for the entire season. They are grown for their variety and taste, not their shelf life.

Many heirlooms are named for the folks who were known to have grown them. There are as many colourful origin stories as there are varieties! Hubbard squash is named after Mrs. Elizabeth “Marm” Hubbard. One of my favorites is the ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato that was developed by a nearly bankrupt radiator repairman nicknamed Radiator Charlie, during the Great Depression. He developed the strain that in six years allowed him to pay off his $6,000 mortgage by selling his new plants! How about the ‘Travellers’ Tomato’, that is so deeply lobed you could break off a section and keep the rest for later on.

But I digress. Today, there are many definitions and much contention on what makes a vegetable an heirloom. Some authorities believe that a variety must have been in existence prior to 1951. Others feel the definition should include anything not grown commercially. 

So, you ask, why do I have to hunt far and wide to find an heirloom? Why can’t I see this rainbow of deliciousness in my supermarket? Well, this not a story that has an evil villain, but a story that was born out of necessity. Survival, even.

In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel, a Catholic monk, began experimenting with peas. His experimentation led to his eventual naming as the ‘father of genetics’. It is believed his work was the beginning of the hybridization of seeds and plants. In the late 1940s, about 100 years after Mendel’s experiments, rapid change occurred in the way vegetables and flowers would be grown from seeds. These changes resulted in strains that were hybridized or genetically ‘enhanced’. Hybrids were developed to be more consistent in size, disease-resistant, and easier to transport to market. The impact on the farming industry was significant. Hybrid breeders proceeded to trademark and market these vegetables on a large scale. Farmers quickly recognized that there was more money to be made from their crops if they switched to hybridized seeds. Can you blame them? Hybridized seeds allowed farmers to grow larger, disease-resistant, more abundant crops, and with a longer shelf life. The trade-off?  They grew fewer varieties, resulting in uniformity of size, shape and colour at the expense of flavour. Kind of like human-engineered ‘natural selection’.  Unfortunately, this also meant that instead of farmers saving their own seeds, they had to buy seeds for each season. Many of the seeds of these varieties were sterile, and if they did germinate, they would not produce true cultivars.

Although mighty, the once prized heirlooms began to face extinction.

Naturally, this led to the practice of monoculture where farmers grow one crop. Even today, when farmers are producing several varieties for market, more often than not, these varieties are very nearly genetically identical which can sometimes lead to serious problems such as disease. If a disease can destroy one plant, it can destroy them all. Think Irish Potato famine, or the 1950s banana fungus that permanently wiped out the Gros Michel banana, the only variety grown commercially at the time.  Farmers changed to the Cavendish banana, the only variety we eat today. Unfortunately, the fungus has mutated and the world’s bananas are once again at risk of complete devastation. In the 1970s, almost all American corn was wiped out, with similar epidemics in the history books that impacted wheat, rice and many other crops.  

As farming became industrialized and demand increased, farmers were now competing against a world market. Hybrids had a permanent place in the fields of the farming industry. In addition to being disease and insect resistant, they also ripen at the same time. A commercial farm with thousands of acres could never tend to a field of crops that ripen on their own schedule. Let’s be honest: as consumers, we also could not afford to pay for it nor would we be willing to accept limited, seasonal selections at our local grocers. Up until very recently, breeding programs for modern hybrid vegetables all but ignored taste and nutrition. For the most part, vegetables are a supply chain commodity with an industry focus on solving revenue-generating challenges of extended shelf life and transportability. In the end, farmers have to put food on their family’s table. With hybrid evolution, they were able to meet the demands of consumers wanting the perfect product sitting on their supermarket shelves. Our grocery store shelves are a modern look at the ‘survival of the fittest’, resulting in a limited, albeit picture-perfect, selection.

But all is not lost—the heirloom is the comeback kid!  As part of a new wave of environmentalism, raising heirlooms has become a worldwide movement. The reasons for this newfound popularity are as diverse as the heirlooms themselves. Several seed-saving organizations have sprung up and small commercial growers have started specializing in heirloom varieties. I feel the stimulus for this is not solely environmental nor even nostalgic, it's taste. We cannot over-emphasize the matter of taste. Flavour is the benchmark for heirloom varieties. Market growers have discovered that people will pay a premium for veggies that actually taste like veggies. When I began cooking, consistency was prized over vibrancy. Sameness meant equality in value. My early days trying to grow and serve these vintage veggies, in all their odd shapes and vibrant glory, were met with some resistance.  Yet, the unexpected flavour, the esthetic interest and the superior taste earned me a reputation for expanding colour palettes and rewarding palates. 

If you have the space and the curiosity to find out what all the hype is about, why not grow your own? If you are doing the work in the garden why not be rewarded with exceptional taste? If you don’t have heritage seeds in your family, there are amazing organizations like Seeds of Diversity, USC Canada (Unitarian Service Committee) and West Coast Seeds that collect and save seeds from extinction.  Growing heirlooms is a link to our heritage. It provides a connection to the generations that came before us and extends that link to our children, grandchildren and beyond.

As always, supply and demand are based on our consumption. Keep an eye out for heirloom varieties at your local farmers’ market. Remember, don’t judge a book by its cover! Heirlooms may not have the picture perfect, insta-glam appearance that vegetable marketers portray. Trust me on this one, inside those lopsided beets, tiny melons with colourful stripes, spikey little cucumbers, twisty, oddly shaped squash and gnarly looking tomatoes is a kaleidoscope of colours and flavours that will change your life.

Tawfik Shehata in a yellow t-shirt with headphones on in the forefront, looking over gardens with forest, greenery, and a truck in the background behind the gardens.
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Tawfik Shehata