Preserving Earth’s Bounty With Heirlooms

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written and compiled by Matt Kirouac
Chefs seek to preserve the world’s food traditions by cooking with heirloom ingredients and sharing their back-stories with diners.

Heirloom cooking and eating

Civil War-era Henry Moore corn is one of the heirloom ingredients used at Nellcôte

Many chefs make it a priority to source and serve heirloom foods — the “endangered species” of the plant kingdom, and some less common animal species — reviving and preserving vintage and arcane varieties that have been crowded out by trends and commercial convenience.

Henry Moore corn, an heirloom variety from the Civil War era, is on the menu at Nellcôte (Chicago). The restaurant mills it into polenta, which Jared Van Camp tops with escargots, snail butter and chicken jus. Van Camp says he likes using heirloom ingredients because it keeps unique products going, such as 150 year-old corn, and it’s great to be able to preserve the history. “Working with heritage ingredients allows us to connect to our past in some ways by using things that people used years ago,” says the chef.

Carl Thorne-Thomsen (Story, Kansas City) loves the superior flavor of heirloom ingredients and feels they make his job easy, saying, “Creating a memorable meal is simple when you start with the best ingredients.” His favorite heirloom ingredient at the moment is Duroc pork belly, which he pairs with veal sweetbreads, artichokes, mushrooms and a red wine sauce.

At The Greenhouse Tavern (Cleveland), chefs have used heirloom Ohio beans, such as Calypso and black turtle beans, to make hearty vegetarian fare, and at Big Bowl (Chicago, Minneapolis, Reston VA), ground heirloom pork fills out steamed dumplings.

Heirloom products are of the utmost importance to Paul Fehribach (Big Jones, Chicago), where heirloom cooking comprises the backbone of the restaurant’s unique Southern menus. He has been a member of Seed Savers Exchange since 1995, and says as long as you know which ingredients to look for, heirloom crops always taste better than modern industrial cultivars. He notes that, just as human genetics can affect susceptibility to different maladies, the same applies to plant and animal genetics.

Among the numerous heirloom dishes prepared at Big Jones, Fehribach has used Henry Moore corn to make fried corn pone, served chicken Clemenceau with heirloom purple hull peas and baked toasted peelcorn oat flour into scones. His most recent creation is bennecake waffles with Sea Island red pea gravy, made as an homage to a dish he had served at Baconfest Chicago.

Gerard Craft always strives to use heirloom ingredients at Niche Restaurant and BRASSERIE by niche (St. Louis). The variety of heirloom products he is able to incorporate onto his menus is ever-growing, and includes more than four different breeds of pigs, hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, various grains and cattle. He also has a chicken farmer working on new breeds of chickens.

We need to preserve the genetic diversity in our food supply to secure that supply for the future.

~ Paul Fehribach, Big Jones, Chicago

“Heirloom ingredients are the essence of local product,” says Jill Barron, executive chef/owner of MANA food bar (Chicago). The unique appearances, attributed to climate and soil, are what make the ingredient special, she says, adding that chefs should be promoting local ingredients and the uniqueness of flavors by any means possible.

Sarah Stegner loves to incorporate heirloom ingredients onto her menus at Prairie Grass Cafe (Chicago) whenever possible. She gets much of her heirloom ingredients from Green City Market, which grows fruits and vegetables that are endangered. Even at her home garden, Stegner sows heirloom seeds such as Christmas lima beans and various peas.

Preserving heirloom ingredients is top priority for Adam Seger (Hum Spirits Co., Chicago), who views them as natural works of art that need to be kept alive to maintain our food culture. In the summer, he likes making heirloom tomato “mojitinicos,” using tomatoes from his own designated plot at Harvest Moon Farms. In the winter, he uses heirloom citrus to make cazuelas. “It is our responsibility, those ‘in the know’ to use and share and promote the intensely flavored, beautifully-colored and oddly shaped heirloom fruits and vegetables we can source,” says Seger.

Says Christine Cikowski (Sunday Dinner Club, Chicago), “It’s our role, nay responsibility, as chefs to serve these ingredients to our diners.” The reasons being that not only are heirloom ingredients delicious, but they are unique and nuanced — and have great names with stories to match.



You may also be interested in

  • We like this post on Eatocracy about heirloom ingredients and Sean Brock (Husk, Charleston), who provides five reasons to use heirloom ingredients.
  • Savor yesterday’s traditions today via the Heirloom Meals blog.
  • Nice article in the Nashua Telegraph about heirloom foods and protecting the world’s food supply.
  • Here’s a source for untreated heirloom seeds of all kinds via Underwood Gardens.


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