Is your favorite food disappearing? 4 recipes and tips to save heirloom foods

The tomatoes my neighbor brought over from her garden were not pretty. They rolled around like marbles in a small cardboard box, various sizes and colors, with little pockmarks around their stems. Yet they were intriguing: I'd never seen ones these shades of purple, red and green, so different from the store-bought symmetrical varieties that seem to pop out of molds.

"What are these called?" I asked. "I'm not exactly sure," she replied. "They're from seeds my grandfather had in the barn." When I bit into one it was sweet, slightly lemony and stunning; better than any tomato I had ever eaten. I could taste summer, sunshine and earth and could imagine her grandfather toiling over the vines. They tasted like an era and a place.

"A Taste of Place" is a running theme in our August issue, and in it we ask you to seek out and celebrate heirloom foods like those tomatoes. No one has taken this message to heart more than ecologist and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, whom many consider to be the father of the locavore movement. In "Renewing America's Food Traditions: A Search for Forgotten Delicacies," Gary calls on all of us to take local eating a step further and celebrate and preserve the foods that make our regions unique.

This idea is gradually catching on around the country. Why should we care about these old-fashioned foods? What does it matter if we lose a species or a variety? If the taste of heirloom tomatoes is not answer enough, there are larger reasons: the price of gas and the ecological cost of transporting food, the growth of vast monoculture crops and the disappearance of small family farms. It is not just our food that is disappearing but America's biodiversity, our landscape and our way of life.

Once there were 14,000 varieties of apples growing in the U.S., each adapted to a region and a purpose. Today just 1,400 are cultivated. That pattern is being mimicked worldwide: today just 30 crops feed 95 percent of the world. By preserving regional and heirloom foods, we are not only preserving our past but also assuring a future that will afford us a greater choice in the foods we bring to our tables.

Tips to preserve heritage and heirloom foods:

  • Become a seed saver through the Seed Saver Exchange (seedsavers.org).
  • Purchase heirloom produce and heritage livestock breeds (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, albc.usa.org).
  • If you think a food is endangered, nominate it to the Slow Ark of Taste, slowfoodusa.org.
  • Support community agriculture, farmers' markets and local food groups.
  • Attend events that celebrate local foods.
  • Organize a meal featuring heirloom foods and recipes from your region. Learn more about the heritage foods in your area and share foods and recipes you want to preserve using our interactive map.

For people who live in certain areas of the Northeast, the recipes from this "Vermont Picnic" incorporate traditional cooking and regional foods:

Maple-Mustard Baked ChickenMaple-Mustard Baked Chicken

Maple-Mustard Baked Chicken: The stately sugar maple tree has long been a cultural, environmental and culinary cornerstone of New England. The spring tradition of boiling maple sap down to make the thick, sweet syrup goes back to the earliest Native Americans. Even today, New Englanders appreciate maple in everything from sweets to savory dishes. Enjoy this crunchy chicken at home for a family supper or take it along on a picnic to eat cold-no forks and knives required! For best flavor, shop for ­locally raised natural chicken and grade B maple syrup. For more about syrup, go to vtmaple.org.

Country Potato SaladCountry Potato Salad

Country Potato Salad: This updated picnic potato salad highlights the cured hams, dairy products and potatoes that were once year-round staples of every New England homestead. If you can find them, small, thin-skinned early potatoes are best in this salad. Look for heirloom varieties, such as Rose Finn Apple, Reddale, Early Rose or Caribe.

Blueberry Tart with Walnut CrustBlueberry Tart with Walnut Crust

Blueberry Tart with Walnut Crust: Wild blueberries are indigenous to the Northeast, and when they're in season, they frequently show up at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whether wild or cultivated, ripe berries need little extra sweetening but a few tablespoons of maple syrup rounds out the flavor of the cream filling. Butternut trees (also called white walnuts) were once common across the region as well, and local cooks collected the nutritious nuts for baking and candy making. Here we use easier-to-find regular walnuts.

Haymaker's Ginger SwitchelHaymaker's Ginger Switchel

Haymaker's Ginger Switchel: Before the days of Gatorade, folks across the Northeast made switchel, a light, refreshing punch, during haying season to quench the farmhands' fierce summer thirst. The original recipe calls for ground ginger (brought to the Colonies via the spice trade), but fresh ginger delivers a bigger punch of flavor and is known to help aid digestion.

9 cups water, divided
1/4 cup minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup honey or pure maple syrup
1/4 cup molasses
3/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup cider vinegar
Fresh berries, mint sprigs or lemon slices for garnish

1. Combine 3 cups water with ginger in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and let infuse for 15 minutes.
2. Strain the ginger-infused water into a pitcher, pressing on the ginger solids to extract all the liquid. Add honey (or maple syrup) and molasses; stir until dissolved. Stir in lemon juice, vinegar and the remaining 6 cups water. Chill until very cold, at least 2 hours or overnight.
3. Stir the punch and serve in tall glasses over ice cubes. Garnish with berries, mint sprigs or lemon slices, if desired.

Makes 8 servings.

MAKE AHEAD TIP: Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
NUTRITION INFORMATION: Per serving: 73 calories; 0 g fat (0 g sat, 0 g mono); 0 mg cholesterol; 20 g carbohydrate; 0 g protein; 0 g fiber; 13 mg sodium; 195 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Vitamin C (18% daily value).

By Lisa Gosselin

Lisa Gosselin is editorial director for EatingWell Media Group. Her passion for food started when she was a kid, growing up in Paris, France. Lisa's favorite thing to do when she visits someplace new is to find a local food market and try something she's never tasted before.


Related Links from EatingWell: