An Heirloom and Heritage Feast

We hear the words “heirloom” and “heritage” in reference to ingredients, but what do they mean? “Heirloom” refers to a variety of edible plants that are grown from open-pollinated seeds (seeds that are pollinated naturally from insects, birds, wind, etc.) and have been passed down from generation to generation for 50 to 100 years. Heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties have never been industrially grown, hybridized or genetically modified. The produce we buy from grocery stores is most often grown by large corporate farms using modern industrial agriculture. Years of industrialized farming have reduced most produce down to only a few varietals that have proven to be high-yielding, shelf-stable, aesthetically pleasing and yet, many agree, flavor-compromised. 

“Heritage” refers to genetically distinct animals traditionally raised for meat. Heritage breeds of pigs, cattle, sheep, rabbits, fowl and poultry tend to be more resistant to disease, better suited to pasture and far more flavorful than commercialized breeds. Animals used for industrial agriculture are bred to produce more eggs and milk, gain weight faster and thrive in a confined space. 

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With the introduction of industrialized farming to America in the early 1970s, and its use of a limited number of species, thousands of heirloom varieties and heritage animal species have died off. Genetic diversity is necessary to ensure the security of our food supply; the fewer breeds we raise and crops we grow, the more susceptible the ones grown are to disease. Yet, it’s not enough for farmers to raise heritage animals and grow heirloom fruits and vegetables—we all need to eat them. Preserving heirloom varieties and heritage species is also part of preserving our culture and social heritage.

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Most people agree that the number-one advantage of heirloom produce and heritage meats is flavor. Many heirloom items tend to be misshapen, have unusual coloring and can be more expensive because of seasonality and lower yields. The best way to avoid some of the price increases is to shop seasonally and locally at area farmers markets. Availability of heirloom and heritage items varies greatly from season to season, so creating relationships with local farmers can help you plan for what will likely be available in the coming weeks. However, there may be availability gaps in some products because of weather conditions, so nothing is a guarantee.

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Heirloom and heritage items are also considered truly clean foods by many people. Never being hybridized or genetically modified, and usually grown or raised without pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, hormones and/or antibiotics, heirlooms and heritage foods are a potential alternative for consumers with food reactions and food sensitivities.

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For a chef, using heirloom and heritage items is a way of celebrating the seasons; a way of paying homage to the chefs, farmers, moms, dads, grandmothers and grandfathers that came before us; and a way to share something special with our customers, friends and families. It’s hard not to feel connected with the products I choose to include on my menus. Heirloom fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers, and heritage breeds of animals raised humanely without the use of unnecessary antibiotics and hormones, are products I feel proud to use.

By Will Packwood • Photography by Jenna Northcutt