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Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables

The quirky, anecdotal history of produce

by James Thorne in Food + Drink on 15 June 2012

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As the homogenization of fruits and vegetables spurs concern among the food-obsessed, interest in heirloom cultivars and their respective origins grows. "Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables" delves into the history of the breeds, forming a kind of miscellany of interesting tidbits around the various types of produce. More of a historical study than a contemporary guide, the book succeeds in building out the mythology of heirloom and heritage varietals, crafting the story and significance of oft-neglected foods.

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Many of the references go back to historical horticulturalists like Pliny the Elder and Charles M'Intosh, writers dedicated to preserving the rich history of plants. "I began by expecting that not all the old cultivars would still be in cultivation," writes author Toby Musgrave, explaining his initial research. "What was shocking was the discovery that Europe has lost perhaps 2,000 cultivars since the 1970s, and in America the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation estimates that 96% of the commercial vegetable cultivars available in 1903 are now extinct." Mass farming sacrifices the more finicky breeds, a trend that is hopefully being curbed by the labor of dedicated local and small-yield farming.

Accompanying the litany of useful errata are 157 sumptuous images from photographer Clay Perry. The still-lifes resemble oil paintings from the western masters, recalling the long held significance of humble produce. Musgrave digs into the history and mythology of various cultivars, relating at one point the tale of the "lumper" potato, a popular crop that caused the Irish potato famine when it succumbed en masse to the disease known as potato blight.

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Each section is introduced with quotations from classical authors that reference the given fruit or vegetable. Some popular modern varietals, such as the gooseberry and currant, require conditions so precise that they were unknown as cultivated food for much of human history. Others, such as the grape, are so old that they have become mythologized—Homer famously referring to the Mediterranean as "the wine-dark sea." Other lesser-known references include a superstition that "spitting a mouthful of beans into a witch's face was said to neutralize her powers." The collection may not be a complete record of the life of fruits and vegetables, though it goes a good way towards explaining the contemporary need to preserve variety in produce.

Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables is available from Thames & Hudson and on Amazon.

Images by James Thorne

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