If a person's only encounters with the terms "heirloom" and "heritage" were on menus, she or he might reasonably conclude that the restaurant is trying a little too hard. That would be a damn shame, because when they're judiciously chosen and skillfully handled, these ingredients can be a flavor revelation—and an important link to the past.
In short, "heirloom" is a designation for produce that hasn't been crossbred with any other varieties for several generations (how many is a matter of debate, but at least 50 years tends to be a good rule of thumb) and hasn't been genetically modified. "Heritage" is essentially the same thing, but for birds and animals. Plenty of people use the terms interchangeably.
Think of it like the Westminster Dog Show but for plants and commonly consumed farm creatures. The tomatoes, corn, beets, okra, chicken, pork and other edibles taste almost exactly as they did when our ancestors enjoyed them (of course, with variances due to growing conditions), because conscientious gardeners and farmers have taken care to save the seeds of, or mate the specimens with, the most desirable, distinctive qualities. This often puts flavor at the fore (or growth potential or weather resistance for a particular region), rather than uniform appearance or durability—the opposite, say, of perfectly round, red hybrid tomatoes that can withstand a cross-country truck trip but often taste like the box they're packed in. That may make these heirloom ingredients a less commercially viable option for the farmers and shippers who stock the nation's produce aisles, but for people like chef Travis Milton of Comfort in Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.-based food historian Michael Twitty, they're worth seeking out and preserving.
"I have seeds that have been in my family or friends' families for seven to 10 generations. I can tell you the story of how my great-grandparents sold a particular bean to support their family through the Depression and the sacrifices they made all on a plate. If not for those sacrifices and that bean—I know how melodramatic this sounds, but it's truly how I feel about it—I might not be here today," Milton says.
Twitty shares Milton's reverence for the human factor involved in preserving these foods and admits to some annoyance with the way they're being marketed to today's diners. "They are not idols; they are foods that have an identity, because of people. It's the people who give the food their identity—not the people who get an identity, because they eat prestige foods."
Twitty's work explores the culinary ties between Africa and the American South, and it's vital to him that people acknowledge the meal they're enjoying didn't just start in the kitchen, in a glossy cookbook or at the hip new co-op up the road. "These ingredients are essential to telling the story of historic Southern cooking and the enslaved people who created the recipes that utilized the okra, hot peppers, tomatoes, watermelon, muskmelon, rice, sorghum and all the other pieces of our story."
And it's a story that might just be told with a full mouth. Milton gets a little teary eyed when he's talking about Hewes Crabapples (which he has tattooed on his upper arm and serves in dishes like kilt lettuce salad with homemade crab apple vinegar or sumac cured trout, whipped pawpaw cream cheese, rye-date crackers, crab apples and pawpaw purée) or Cherokee Long Greasy Beans (the star of the shuck beans or "leather britches" that his family puts up and which he describes as "one of my end-all-be-all dishes"), but he believes that having people try these ingredients for themselves is the best way to protect their legacy.
"You can really pick through and find what flavor or texture you want—of course, this takes a lot of dedication, but it'll always be worth it," he says. "And there's also the plus that you are helping to preserve a flavor and piece of history by using an heirloom."