How to Honor Your Heirlooms

The Fabulous Beekman Boys discuss how they carry along culinary traditions.

How old is that carrot you just ate? No, not the actual carrot — its genes. In the last decade or so, Americans have come to value heirloom varieties of vegetables, especially tomatoes. But for us at The Beekman, calling something "heirloom" is just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce, introduced in 1894).

After all, for those of us who collect antiques, we're not satisfied merely calling something "heirloom" or "antique." We don't just collect "old plates" — we collect Flow Blue dishware, or Depression glass, or Mercury glass. We tend to learn everything possible about our historic treasures. Ask anyone who collects vintage automobiles about their "old cars" and you will likely wind up spending the rest of the day hearing every little detail about them.

We enjoy researching the lineage and history of the vegetables we plant in our heirloom garden. This year we enlisted the help of Barb Melera, proprietor of Landreth Seeds, to help us divide the Beekman Heirloom plantings into three groups: Early Beekman Garden (varieties that would have been grown 1800-1850), Mid Beekman Garden (1850-1900) and Late Beekman Garden (1900-present day.)

The history of many different varieties of heirloom vegetables is often as colorful as the vegetables themselves. Many of them were carried to America in immigrants’ pockets. With space being severely limited on the crowded ships bringing new Americans to our shores, the seeds of favorite homegrown vegetables were a very efficacious way to bring a big piece of immigrants' old homes to their new one. They might have had to leave behind many cherished possessions, but at least they could carry along their culinary traditions as well as the seeds to grow their favorite meals.

We hope that the idea of creating historic gardens might continue to catch on. We love to sit down to a meal in our kitchen at The Beekman knowing that, in all likelihood, William Beekman himself once ate the same varieties of veggies, in the same room, as those that adorn our plate.

Here are a few suggestions of historic gardens you might try this year:

Historic Home Garden — When was your home built? If you have a home that is more than 50 or so years old, chances are that the very first garden at the house looked quite different from the one you planted last year. You've painted and decorated you home in period decor…why not bring the same research and interest to your yard and dinner table?

Ancestral History Garden — How far back have you researched your genealogy? Did your great great-great-grandmother arrive on these shores from Ireland in 1845? Or from Italy in 1910? Honor her and the rest of your ancestors by re-creating their first gardens on American soil.

Antique Tableware Garden — Many of us have interesting collections of antique tableware. Throw a special harvest party that not only shows off your vast collection of Victorian serving ware but also puts it to its original use with authentic Victorian-era heirloom produce varieties. Or use your Revolutionary War pewter pieces to serve part of a Thanksgiving dinner that includes corn and squash varieties introduced by Native Americans.

Get some of the Fabulous Beekman Boys' heirloom recipes:

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