That conversation got me thinking. I love Russian (and Ukrainian) tomatoes, but of course tomatoes don't really come from Europe at all. Tomatoes are native to South America, and, like a host of other delicious things (beans, squash, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, corn...) only made it to European gardens and tables after Columbus opened the new world to European explorers. Tomatoes, when they were first arrived in the old world, were a mix of varieties adapted to grow in warm South and Central American climates and selected for use in local food traditions and culture. Once they arrived in Europe, however, local gardeners took them on and made them their own. By saving seeds from varieties that performed well in their local climates and local cuisines, Italians created heat-loving, red, often green-shouldered varieties with a bright, clean taste, while Russians (and their neighbors) perfected cool tolerant, dark fleshed “black” tomatoes with a rich, smokey flavor.
|Italian food. Plants from around the world.|
It isn't surprising to me that the Brandywines, and other homegrown heirlooms like the Mortgage Lifter varieties, are so popular here in the US. After all, they were created here, the product of our culture, just as different European and Asian cultures have created their own specific takes on tomatoes that reflect their different values, cooking styles, and ways of life. Heirloom varieties are more than simply a crop, they are the result of a long, dynamic partnership between plants and people that has been going on since agriculture began. Weedy grasses give up life in the wild to become wheat and corn, one little plant scientists know as Brassica oleraceae morphed into myriad forms gardeners call broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, and of course, tomatoes sailed around the world to form a perfect partnership with Italian pasta.
|Corn, before it teamed up with humans|
This story has been told many times, and many gardeners have turned to growing historic heirloom varieties in response. But that is only half the solution. We've worked hard to preserve what previous generations have created. Now it is time to bring back the very art of that creation itself.
Which brings me to the big news of today's post. The working title of my upcoming book for Timber Press is Creating New Heirlooms, and it is going be all about the concepts I just outlined in this post. I'm super excited about it, and hope you are too!