Missed last week's Food in the Garden 2013 Summer Series event? New Media intern Hannah Ostroff recaps the discussion on growing local, food traditions, and heirlooms.
These were the overarching questions that launched the inaugural Food in the Garden Summer Series on Thursday, July 18th. Record high temperatures did not keep crowds away—the event was sold out, with standing room only for the panel discussion featuring five experts in local food and food history.
Guests enjoyed views of the beautiful and budding Smithsonian Gardens' Victory Garden, while sipping on cocktails made with WildCraft Soda and Green Hat Gin, and feasting on delicious plates generously provided by Nick's Organic Farm and Wegmans. Then they gathered to hear about a subject that we all know and love: food.
But what is an "heirloom," anyway? Susan Evans, Program Director of the American Food History Project, kicked off the evening by posing a similar question to the audience: "What do you think of when I say heirloom?" The answer was overwhelmingly "tomato," although a few guests offered answers like "corn" or "tradition." One simply said, "tasty."
Nick Maravell of Nick's Organic Farm explained that, to him, "heirlooms represent a cultural and agronomic approach to farming." Considering the scope of the museum's exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000, he remarked that so much has changed over time in terms of how Americans grow food. He said that a large percentage of our vegetables and other varieties may have been lost, due to lack of use. Once a variety of seed is lost, it's gone: we "can't take it off the shelf," said Maravell.
Rayna Green, Native American food and plant specialist and curator in the museum's Division of Home and Community Life, took it even further and explained the cultural definition of heirlooms—that they are plants highly valued for specificity, are grown locally, and often have been in a family for ages. For Green, heirlooms are "the memory, and a lot of this is about the memory."
Hiu Newcomb of Potomac Vegetable Farm has a history of introducing nontraditional vegetables to this area. She and her husband started their farm 51 years ago, and had to consider commercial success in addition to the ever-important issue of taste in their crops. While Newcomb shares a belief in the value of heirloom vegetables, they do not grow exclusively heirloom crops on the farm. They have started selling Asian greens such as bok choy, which is resistant to diseases, in an effort to combat trouble in growing heirloom tomatoes. Out of 25 plants, Newcomb said, only one might be viable for produce. "It was a lot of work to grow that vine... and to have it fail was not something we could put up with."
And how do her customers react to vegetables they might not be used to? Newcomb said they want local foods that are wholesome and worry-free, and will try something new. "Sure, it tastes great—just put it with garlic and olive oil!" she tells them. "Customers are telling us: 'We want better tasting food.'"
Ira Wallace, of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, considered how plant breeding has changed over the years. She explained that 100 years ago, most breeding was done by farmers, who took what they had and made it better.
When it comes to seeds, place really matters. "What is local?" questioned Pati Jinich, host of "Pati’s Mexican Table" and cookbook author. She grew up in Mexico City, but now resides in Washington, D.C.
She said that "heirloom" has become heavily charged, and that we must be careful not to take sides on this potentially polarizing issue. In her mind, heirlooms are something to treasure, but that we should not look down on what has been commercially successful—it's about finding a balance. Mass production can make that difficult, she said, with a focus on seeds that will survive. "What about the genes for delicious? It’s that trade-off."
Green said that when grocery shopping for ingredients, she asks, "How does it create the memory?" Hui said she enjoys taking children on tours of her farm, and shocking their parents when the youth demonstrate an affinity for vegetables they never would have liked at home. They love them, she said, because they’re fresh, picked right off the vine. "Just rub it on your pants," she said, and they're ready to eat.
As the conversation came to a close, Evans asked about the resurgence of heirlooms and local growing. "Is it a movement?"
Yes, said Jinich. "There is a movement and it's beautiful." She explained food as a language, where new markets open up when we want to hear the language of other people as well as the familiar language of foods from our own heritage. In this way, food breaks down borders and broadens outlooks.
Wallace concluded the panel by asking the audience to think about their children and grandchildren. "Each of you consider one thing that you value—save a seed."
See the full Flickr set from the event here. There are some tickets remaining for the next Food in the Garden event on Thursday, July 25, which is titled, "Foraging: Finding Food at Your Feet." Hannah Ostroff is an intern in the New Media Department. She has also blogged about our 19th-century fire engine installation.
Food in the Garden is made possible through the generous support of DuPont Pioneer and The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. The programs are presented by the Museum's American Food History Project and Smithsonian Gardens.