Tragic Beans and Radiator Tomatoes: Heirloom Vegetables Contain Stories, History
Check out new book on Edible Heirlooms by Tilth friend, Bill Thorness.
by Bill Thorness, author of Edible Heirlooms
If your house was on fire, what would you save? Most people would grab photos and memorabilia first. Our ancestors probably would have grabbed their seeds.
Immigrants coming to America often traveled with the favorite seeds from their home gardens. Often these were varieties grown for years or maybe generations, and they were valuable. Not only did a compact, lightweight package represent food that a poor immigrant could grow virtually free, but it was a tie to the old country. Growing and eating the food would bring the sense-memories flooding back.
When I first thought about heirloom vegetables, I pictured those old travelers, going boldly into a wild, scary land, hoping for a better life, but not wanting to give up parts of their former lives that made them unique. As I learned more about the varieties, I realized there are powerful stories buried in the seeds.
The Cherokee Trail of Tears bean comes to mind. The name alone indicates pain, and in fact, it was the bean grown by the Cherokee people when they lived in the American Southeast. As the land was being settled by European immigrants, the powerful U.S. Army drove the Cherokees out, forcing them to relocate to Oklahoma. The forced march through the Smoky Mountains in the winter of 1838 left some 4,000 graves by the side of the road. One precious item carried by the Cherokees to their new home was their prize bean. It’s a pole bean with slender green pods with purple streaks that are flavorful when fresh and yield jet-black dried beans.
That’s the most tragic heirloom story; most of them are quite positive, like the story behind Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato.
Charlie was indeed a radiator repairman in Logan, West Virginia in the 1930s. He was also an amateur, but clearly skilled, tomato breeder. He cross-pollinated four beefsteak varieties year after year, putting the biggest one in the center of his patch and surrounding it by the others. After seven years, he came up with his dream variety, and began selling plants from his own seeds, at $1 each. With six years of proceeds, he paid off his $6,000 home mortgage. This tomato variety has large, wine-red fruits, which may crack along the shoulders, on vigorous, indeterminate plants.
These stories, from the tragic to the delightful, are just one reason to grow heirloom vegetables. Flavor and uniqueness are two other great reasons that you’ll discover when you try them.
Maybe you remember the varieties grown in your grandparents’ garden, and go and seek out the same ones so you can get those sense-memories of time gone by. Or maybe you still grow seeds passed down to you from your grandparents. The handful of seeds, with its history, stories and wonderful food, is perhaps one of the greatest gifts they passed on to you.
Meet Bill Thorness at the Portland Yard, Garden & Patio Show, Friday, Feb. 12 at 3pm!