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Celebrating heirlooms

June 14, 2014

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The Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival is this weekend! Second to watching local politicians face off in a tomato-eating contest, my favorite part is sampling locally grown heirloom tomatoes. Not only were there the celebrated pink tomatoes that have been grown in Bradley County since the 1920s, but also Purple Cherokee, Red Zebra, Traveler, and Brandywine tomatoes. photo 1

An heirloom is any variety that is at least fifty years old and is open pollinated. Heirlooms often have improved taste and the seeds can also be saved and replanted each year (where hybrid breeds cannot use the same seeds year after year). In the 1980s, there was a major shift in the tomato industry as red tomatoes gained prominence in the commercial market. Today, red tomatoes are the primary tomato being produced, but a number of farmers are still growing the pink tomato and some farms, like Deepwoods Farm, are trying their hand at heirlooms. The flavor of an heirloom tomato does not compare to the mealy red tomatoes that you find on the grocery store shelf.

Tomatoes are not the only heirloom crop being produced. Recentlyphoto(1) I cooked a batch of Anson Mills’ Antebellum Coarse White Grits with crimini mushrooms stuffed with zucchini, kalamata olive and feta. Anson Mills is producing their grits with Carolina Gourdseed White corn which was prized historically for its exceptional flavor and texture and, until recently, it was nearly extinct. The milling company is seeking to reintroduce the diverse and flavorful foodways of the Carolinas.

As their website states, Seedsmen of the 19th century bred for flavor—not for transport, not for visual appeal, not for shelf life, not even for disease resistance. Agriculturists of the period sought to impose the maximal beneficial effect of terroir on their ingredients.

Terrior is the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with plant genetics, express in agricultural products. Tomatoes have a rich history in southeast Arkansas and Bob Stark and Paul Francis from the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM) are conducting research to examine how heirloom tomatoes can help the economic growth of southeastern Arkansas and are working with farmers and other supporters to promote heirloom breeds in Arkansas. The Pink Tomato Festival is a reminder of the importance of the tomato in Arkansans diet. Maybe like the Carolina Gourdseed corn, the name recognition of popular heirloom tomatoes, such as the Arkansas Traveler, will play a significant role in reincorporating heirloom tomatoes into the diets of local Arkansans and reinvigorate tomato farming.

 

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Jamie Chad Brandon's Home on the Web... an anthropologist living, researching and teaching in Arkansas

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