of vegetables evolved in various parts of the world. Carrots, spinach,
beans and onions originated in Asia; squash, corn, tomatoes, potatoes,
beans and tomatoes are all native to South America. Mexico spawned
peppers. Later, Europeans grew cucumbers, carrots, turnips and leeks.
Germans favored cabbage and Italians became known for paste tomatoes.
How did all these vegetables make their way to this country? Throughout the Americas, indigenous peoples cultivated those varieties native to South America. Later, immigrants, slaves, refugees, armies, missionaries, explorers and wildlife brought seeds and plants with them to this country. Those coming here to start a new life brought seeds in the hems of their skirts, the linings of their suitcases and inside their hat bands.
The earliest heirlooms were grown as an important part of a family's diet; vegetable gardens provided a great percentage of the food at almost every meal. Why did certain varieties persist and find their way into more and more vegetable plots? There was something about a particular tomato's high flesh and low juice content that made it good for cooking. Or a certain great tasting potato stored well for an unusually long time and thus became a staple variety, growing into wide use. A special lettuce produced tender, crispy leaves from mid spring on yet was later than most other lettuces to bolt and set seed as warmer weather set in. There are a myriad of reasons why particular varieties were favored and became very popular. Gardeners saved the seed and seed sources (in the case of potatoes) from these favorites and passed them on to family members and friends.
In the case of some vintage varieties, entertaining legends have grown up. Folklore says that the Charlie Radiator's Mortgage Lifter tomato derived its name from the man who grew these special tomatoes and sold them to pay off a mortgage on a farm he was about to lose.
The names of many heirlooms reflect their heritage and give a hint of their history: Early Ohio potatoes, Mayflower beans, Detroit Dark Red beets, Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage, Belgium White carrots, West Indian Gherkin cucumbers, Old Time Tennessee cantaloupe, Hungarian Paprika peppers, French Breakfast radishes, Connecticut Field squash and Nebraska Wedding tomatoes.
In the 1800's, commercial seed companies made vegetable seeds (all open-pollinated, heirlooms) available by mail to gardeners across the country. The end of the 19th century saw the beginning of truck farming; these farmers made their livings by growing and selling their fresh produce. With vegetables now available in grocery stores and markets, fewer people grew their own vegetables. Hybrid varieties became available in the '30s and more and more gardeners started to switch to these newer varieties, which were heavily promoted by the commercial seed companies. Fortunately, a few dedicated individuals kept their treasured vintage varieties in their gardens and faithfully saved the seeds.
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