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Homegrown heirlooms


It was a story that seemed straight out of TV's "The History Detectives" in which professional sleuths attempt to get to the bottom of historical mysteries.

In this case, the detective team included Forestville resident Elissa Rubin-Mahon, who, back in 2005, was determined to dig out a living Bodega Red Potato, even though the mystery tuber was said to have died out from a blight generations earlier.

Rubin-Mahon was a member of Slow Food USA's Sonoma County North Chapter as well as a representative to the national Slow Food's Ark of Taste committee, a project that aims to spotlight and help preserve rare heritage varieties of foods that are threatened with extinction by big agribusiness and environmental damage. She thought that if it could be found, the Bodega Red, known for its creamy and nutty taste, might make an excellent addition to the Ark, a discriminating catalog of heritage varieties.

"The idea is that there are all kinds of heirloom foods out there and the mission is to find those that have a certain amount of historical important but also have another qualifier, that they taste good," Rubin-Mahon said.

In 2007, an anonymous gardener came forward with some potato seeds they knew to be Bodega Reds. They were given to the Bodega Land Trust and Slow Food to grow. Tubers from the test potato were sent to the University of California and the University of Michigan and to a research geneticist with the USDA, who determined that the potato was most likely a Bodega red.

It is now one of 200 rare and regional heirloom foods on the U.S. Ark of Taste. Other local favorites earmarked for honors on the Ark include the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple and the Burbank Tomato, a small, uniform tomato with a deep red color and high nutrition content developed by famed Sonoma County horticulturist Luther Burbank in 1914.

But there are other local heirlooms that were developed here or came to be closely associated with this area. They include the Crane Melon, developed by Oliver Crane more than a century ago and kept in production by Crane heirs on their historic property on Petaluma Hill Road, the Sebastopol Tomato and the Petaluma Gold Rush Bean, thought to have been brought to the U.S. from Peru by the Azevedo family, which grew them for generations in Petaluma. Thanks to another local Slow Food member, Barbara Bowman, who hunted that long-lost heirloom down to the kitchen garden of an elderly Wisconsin farmer, the Petaluma Gold Rush has now been reintroduced to growers in Sonoma County.

Interest in heirloom fruits and vegetables has exploded, not just among commercial growers but also among home gardeners, who love the rich taste of these old varieties that were favorites of their ancestors.

"I just love the idea of growing something that people have grown and developed way before me. It's like going back in time to connect with other people like myself, who depended on these plants. It's very awe-inspiring," said Lena Hahn-Schuman, who has been growing heirloom fruits and vegetable starts for a number of years at her Sebastopol nursery, "Oldies and Goodies."

"Usually, with some exceptions, they have better flavor. They were developed by people who were not numbed out by the tomatoes you get in the supermarket. They wanted food that tasted good," she added. "The best flavors were developed in their gardens.:

While the definition of an heirloom fruit or vegetable seems to differ depending on who you ask, horticultural historian and Luther Burbank expert Bob Hornback said heirlooms are at least 50 years old. That means everything developed by Burbank, from the Santa Rosa Plum to Burbank Slicing Tomato, are heirlooms.

Heirlooms also are what are called open-pollinated, which means pollinated without human intervention by wind or insects.

"A hybrid is the product of at least two parents, so if you plant a Sun Gold Tomato, which is a hybrid, you will not get a Sun Gold. You will get the same plant as the parents. So each time they want to make the Sun Gold tomato seeds, they have to cross-pollinate the parent. You can't save those seeds. You have to buy them every year."

At a time of patents and increasing proprietary control by seed companies, the ability to save the seed from heirlooms makes them especially valuable to small growers and home gardeners, who by growing them are contributing to keeping these strains alive while protecting the planet's biodiversity.

Some of the efforts to find and preserve these oldies but goodies are paying off. Lee Walker, 81, whose Walker Ranch is the last of the old apple growers and packing sheds in Sebastopol, said since Slow Food took up the Gravenstein's cause, demand has way gone up.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@aol.com