Heirloom. The word used to make us think of Grandma’s china or weird Uncle Al’s vintage coin collection, but not anymore. Today we think “vegetable” and, as much as the word has permeated our consciousness (and taste buds), there’s still a lot of confusion and mystery around what an heirloom really is. Luckily these five authors set the record straight about heirloom vegetables in their own charming and entertaining ways. So, whether you’re new to heirloom gardening, obsessing about a single crop, looking for ways to cook the treasures you find at the farmer’s market (or in your Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, box), or seriously geeked about the history of veggies and their impact on mankind, you’ll find what you’re looking for in one of these five terrific heirloom vegetable books.
How Carrots Won the Trojan War by Rebecca Rupp (Storey)
Heirloom vegetables can sometimes seem like a delicate maiden who needs to be saved from the train tracks of big agriculture. But here Rupp teaches us how vegetables have been showing us who’s the boss for eons. In the chapter “Turnips Make a Viscount Famous,” for example, we learn that this humble veg has been grown since Neolithic times and once was the gilded table decoration of choice for nobility. In “Peppers Win the Nobel Prize,” their 6,000 year history is punctuated by a period in the 1400s during which garden peppers were used as a substitute for black pepper, which was (literally) worth its weight in gold. And as far as those carrots that helped win the Trojan War? Aside from being purple, they were also considered an aphrodisiac, so the soldiers who ate them (quietly, we must assume) were probably more ready for the victory celebration.
The Beginner’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables by Marie Iannotti (Timber Press)
This book is remarkable for two reasons. First, it gives a friendly, no-nonsense, and accommodating definition of what an heirloom is (and isn’t). Second, her list of suggested veggies to try is not only classified in a fun and easy matter, but it is also comprehensive enough to keep your garden full of discovery for years. This is a single, comprehensive resource on heirlooms worth preserving for the next generation.
The Heirloom Tomato by Amy Goldman (Bloomberg Press)
Amy Goldman literally wrote the book on heirloom tomatoes. Granted, it’s not new, but this book is still the gold standard for appreciation of, dedication to, and admiration of “the world’s most beautiful fruit.” And while it is easy to get distracted by the art gallery-worthy images, Goldman is serious about her tomato reporting. For each cultivar, she not only gives extensive (and useful) growing characteristics, best uses, and history, but also lists their brix score (sugar content) and synonyms (similar tomatoes). Plus, her cataloging is comprehensive and beautifully presented. If you dream of heirloom tomatoes, this is the book to keep on your nightstand.
The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide by Steve Sando (Timber Press)
Here, Sando takes a different look at a crop we think we know. In a simple manner, he sidesteps the precious and sometimes political labels that have been slapped on heirlooms in many foodie and food activist circles by stating, “Shut up and eat!” In this way, he reminds us all that the best way to save heirlooms isn’t by pontificating about them, but by growing and eating them. After that common sense showstopper, he lets his love for the humble bean ring clear through his presentation of the veggie’s inclusive history, variety descriptions, and very tasty recipes. By the end, I’m betting you will love beans, too.
The CSA Cookbook by Linda Ly (Voyageur Press)
While not heirloom-centric per se, Linda Ly’s new book fills an important niche: how to cook from that box of mysterious ingredients you get from your local farmer. She covers some of the less famous heirloom veggies out there, including romanesco broccoli, yard-long beans, fava beans, and the ancient (and underappreciated) garlic chive. But the best thing this book does for heirlooms is to demonstrate how to cook whatever you’ve got and enjoy it tremendously. And whether you get your heirloom veggies from a CSA box, farmer’s market, or your own garden, that’s a very good thing!
In the end, the best part about all five of these books is that they give a fine education about heirlooms—and such teaching is sorely needed. Case in point: I once ordered an heirloom tomato salad at a restaurant in New York City. When it arrived, I asked the server what types of tomatoes they were. She replied, “It’s just one tomato with multi-color stripes. They just slice it and it has all those colors.” I was too slack-jawed to reply before she dashed away to spread her ill-informed message to the other diners. The “tip” I should have left? “Honey, read one of these books. NOW!”
Article by LaManda Joy. Joy is an author, national speaker, and award-winning Master Gardener, and is considered the “Best Urban Farmer in Chicago.” Inspired by the massive WW2 Victory Garden movement, she founded the Peterson Garden Project, an edible gardening and cooking education program, in Chicago, IL. In 2013, she collaborated on Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland, and her new book, Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook (Timber Press), was named one of eight top lifestyle books in 2014 by Publisher’s Weekly. LaManda has spoken at the Library of Congress, national conferences, garden shows, festivals, and libraries, and appeared on PBS and other media outlets, including in the documentary Food Patriots.