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Edible Memory

The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods

Each week during the growing season, farmers’ markets offer up such delicious treasures as brandywine tomatoes, cosmic purple carrots, pink pearl apples, and chioggia beets—varieties of fruits and vegetables that are prized by home chefs and carefully stewarded by farmers from year to year. These are the heirlooms and the antiques of the food world, endowed with their own rich histories. While cooking techniques and flavor fads have changed from generation to generation, a Ribston Pippin apple today can taste just as flavorful as it did in the eighteenth century. But how does an apple become an antique and a tomato an heirloom? In Edible Memory, Jennifer A. Jordan examines the ways that people around the world have sought to identify and preserve old-fashioned varieties of produce. In doing so, Jordan shows that these fruits and vegetables offer a powerful emotional and physical connection to a shared genetic, cultural, and culinary past.
Jordan begins with the heirloom tomato, inquiring into its botanical origins in South America and its culinary beginnings in Aztec cooking to show how the homely and homegrown tomato has since grown to be an object of wealth and taste, as well as a popular symbol of the farm-to-table and heritage foods movements.  She shows how a shift in the 1940s away from open pollination resulted in a narrow range of hybrid tomato crops. But memory and the pursuit of flavor led to intense seed-saving efforts increasing in the 1970s, as local produce and seeds began to be recognized as living windows to the past. In the chapters that follow, Jordan combines lush description and thorough research as she investigates the long history of antique apples; changing tastes in turnips and related foods like kale and parsnips; the movement of vegetables and fruits around the globe in the wake of Columbus; and the poignant, perishable world of stone fruits and tropical fruit, in order to reveal the connections—the edible memories—these heirlooms offer for farmers, gardeners, chefs, diners, and home cooks. This deep culinary connection to the past influences not only the foods we grow and consume, but the ways we shape and imagine our farms, gardens, and local landscapes.
From the farmers’ market to the seed bank to the neighborhood bistro, these foods offer essential keys not only to our past but also to the future of agriculture, the environment, and taste. By cultivating these edible memories, Jordan reveals, we can stay connected to a delicious heritage of historic flavors, and to the pleasures and possibilities for generations of feasts to come.

Read an excerpt from chapter one: "Heirloom Food, Edible Memory".

328 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Food and Gastronomy

History: American History

Sociology: Social History, Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


“Although a lot of books have appeared in recent years about food cultures and foodways, none have analyzed how personal nostalgia and food politics are intertwined, sometimes in mutual support of one another (local heirloom tomatoes) and sometimes in conflict (green Jell-O salad, anyone?).  Jordan, who has done exemplary research on how memory shaped modern Berlin, is perfectly situated to examine the emotion work and emotion play we lavish on what we grow, seek, and put into our mouths.  Jordan is working in some of the most vital areas in cultural sociology: theoretically, a sociology of materiality and sensory experience; substantively, food studies and cognitive sociology; methodologically, interweaving of the micro-historical (personal) with the macro-historical (developments in agriculture, consumerism, nationalism).  This is an important book.”

Wendy Griswold, Northwestern University

Edible Memory reminds us that food isn't just something we eat.  It’s something we feel.  This realization shouldn't be mistaken to mean these feelings and memories are fundamentally an individual and individuating experience.  To feel is to be connected. This book, more than most out there that interrogate food cultures, tells a story about food that helps us understand its deeply sociological underbelly.”

Michael S. Carolan, Colorado State University

"Edible Memory deftly illustrates the power of food to create indelible, collective links to the past. Jordan's lively prose elicits smells, sights, and even similar flavors as those that the book’s subjects worked so tirelessly to preserve. Scholars, foodies, and the general public alike will all benefit greatly from reading this thought-provoking work.”

Adam Shprintzen, author of The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921

“In Edible Memory, Jennifer A. Jordan weaves warm personal testimony with a formidable range of literature on the associations and attachments that make people long and search for certain old-timey fruits and vegetables. The memories she documents are both individual and collective, contemporary and historical, and span multiple landscapes from urban Chicago to rural Austria. Her arguments whet the appetite for more meaning in the way we gather, produce, consume, share, and ‘make’ our food.”

Virginia D. Nazarea, University of Georgia

Edible Memory is a compelling exploration of the lure and lore of foods that have become culinary ‘heirlooms,’ especially some kinds of tomatoes, but also apples, stone fruits, even leeks and turnips.  A meticulous scholar and an incisive sociologist, Jordan writes with verve and wit throughout this beautifully nuanced study.  Exploring the many varieties of culinary nostalgia, she avoids sentimentality while investigating our sometimes paradoxical yearnings for fruits and vegetables we may not even have eaten in our own lives and our curiously Proustian longings for (even) Jell-O molds and boxed cakes.  Her book is an important contribution both to food studies and, more generally, to the history of taste.”

Sandra M. Gilbert, author of The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity

“This study of the recent resurgence of ‘heirloom’ crops—tomatoes, apples, carrots, and more—examines the nostalgia and the prestige that surround them. The long reign of the smooth, bright-red tomato began in the mid-twentieth century, when large-scale farms found that standard sizes and shapes were easier to process and looked more attractive on grocery-store shelves. Meanwhile, gardeners kept growing the varieties they knew, whether green or orange, bumpy or freckly, pulpy or crisp. Jordan’s theme is memory and how food connects us to traditions. We are more emotional about some foods than others. Broccoli, celery, and cucumbers, it seems, exist on a B-list of vegetables that will never be widely appreciated ‘heirlooms.’”

New Yorker

“Jordan spins a tale of forgotten foods in Edible Memory. It’s not a cookbook, though reading Jordan wax nostalgic about heirloom tomatoes and other ‘antiques of the food world’ will certainly make you want to head to the nearest farmers’ market; fill your reusable shopping bag with cosmic purple carrots, Chioggia beets, and pink pearl apples; and then head right home to cook a feast. I’m a fan!”

Washington Independent Review of Books

“Jordan believes we should be remembering more than just the sensual pleasures of eating, however. Odd as it may seem, there are individual types among species of foods that are now forgotten. . . . The very thought of a forgotten turnip is enough to get me thoroughly ensconced in Edible Memory. Jordan, struck by the sight of knobbly tomatoes in various colours at her local farmers’ market, wonders where they have been and how it was possible to bring them back from the dead, as it were — and also why we now love these new-old breeds so dearly. . . . Plantsmen and anyone who loves food will treasure Jordan’s book — it simply confirms that food is not just fuel.”


“What isn’t in doubt . . . is the importance of holding on to whatever variation we can in our rapidly homogenizing world. ‘If . . . one orchard disappears, making way for a handful of new houses or a parking lot, a single family’s memory vanishes, as do a few aging fruit trees,’ Jordan says. ‘When this happens on a larger scale, we lose something much bigger.’ If Jordan is right, we risk literally paving over paradise.”

Times Literary Supplement

“Jordan writes beautifully and with enthusiasm, reminding us that the crops we cultivate and the food on our table have changed along with social conditions.”

Milwaukee Shepherd Express

“Jordan charts her journey through ancient orchards, farmers’ markets, and modern supermarkets in search of both the reality and the fantasy of ‘heirloom’ fruits and vegetables.  . . . Located midway between scholarly and popular genres, this book .  . . could prompt a good classroom discussion of authenticity and the invention of tradition. Recommended.”


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