5 heirloom foods that farmers want to bring back from obscurity
These old delicacies are making a comeback and bringing back bygone tastes.
This story originally appeared in the Taste issue of Popular Science. Current subscribers can access the whole digital edition here, or click here for a new subscription.
Bored by the uniform tastes born of modern industrialized farming, food historians, small-farm growers, and curious gourmands are resurrecting forgotten eats—once-famous crops ready for a second act. Their efforts represent a clarion call to embrace bites with flavors as rich as their backstories. Here are a few long-gone bites making delicious comebacks.
Cocke’s Prolific white dent corn
Cocke’s Prolific white dent corn scarcely resembles the sweet yellow cobs that line produce aisles and markets. The grain gets its name from the shape of its kernels: shrunken, with a dimple at the top. The taste, according to culinary historian David S. Shields, is singular. “Very good,” he says, with a “flinty wholesomeness”—especially when used to whip up grits or spoonbread. “So light, so buttery, so quick to disappear.”
Its story begins in the 1820s when John Hartwell Cocke—a brigadier general of the Virginia militia during the War of 1812—crossed a round-kerneled white flint corn with Virginia white gourdseed corn. Flint matured in less than three months, but was too starchy for easy milling; gourdseed ground up better, but took a long time to ripen and bore just one ear per stalk. A single shoot of the general’s Frankenstein could produce as many as five ears—a whole lot in those times. The horse-racing set also loved it, since its high sugar content gave animals a kick.
“It was a national corn at the end of the 19th century,” says Shields, who heads up the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, a nonprofit working to preserve heirloom foods. During the 1900s, though, Cocke’s Prolific was crowded out by inexpensive yellow dent corn, whose makeup was better suited for mass production of products like syrup—it also made for excellent livestock feed. Thanks to its versatility and hardiness, It’s now the most widely cultivated variety of the grain across the globe.
A single family in rural South Carolina—named the Farmers, if you can believe it—kept Cocke’s Prolific alive as a memorial to a beloved patriarch, who had grown it since the 1930s but died unexpectedly in 1945. In 2017, Shields got wind after a friend of the Farmers began selling kernels on Craigslist. Once Shields’ foundation broke the news of the long-gone corn, people across the US started requesting seeds. Now, Shields says, “it’s being grown from Maine to Arizona.”
[Related: “Indigenous farmers are ‘rematriating’ centuries-old seeds to plant a movement”]
Beaver Dam pepper
Common rainbow bells sweeten as they ripen, but Beaver Dam peppers get a total flavor overhaul with age: Young green ones are a bit acidic, but they eventually turn red and grow bold, with a taste both sweet and spicy. Chopped and boiled down with vinegar, sugar, and pectin, the veggie adds a unique kick to homemade hot pepper jelly. Folks also like it in salsa.
“It [has] a subtle, zesty heat. It’s the best of a sweet pepper with some elements of spice to it,” says John Hendrickson, a local farmer who grows the variety.
The veggie originally came to the town of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, two years before the outbreak of the First World War, when Joe Hussli left the Austro-Hungarian Empire carrying several seeds. While it was never commercially cultivated, the pepper was passed down through the Hussli family and others. Like many other heirloom bites, though, it fell out of favor as hardy hybridized vegetables filled grocery stores in the middle of the 20th century.
Still, Beaver Dam’s prized pepper lived on thanks to groups like the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that conserves heirloom foods. Hendrickson bought seeds from them more than a decade ago and tapped Hussli’s grandson for growing advice. For example, he learned that the stalks stretch unusually tall, so he cultivates them in pairs that hold one another up. Hungry Cheeseheads were ready: “They have such a huge following among people who like them,” he says.
So beloved is the food that in 2014, Diana Ogle—a Wisconsin transplant fascinated by the town’s namesake vegetable—launched the Beaver Dam Pepper Festival. It features local businesses, artisans, and, of course, the famed produce itself. Hendrickson plays a critical role: He’s the only farmer there who sells the hamlet’s signature crop. “I am the ‘pepper guy,’” he says.
Manoomin (wild rice)
More than a millennium ago, Indigenous tribes migrated to the region we now know as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, inspired by a prophecy to journey to a place where food grows on the water. There they found wild rice, which isn’t rice at all, but rather the slim, black grain of a tall grass that grows well in calm waters with muddy bottoms. The tribes called it manoomin in Ojibwa, the language of the Chippewa.
“It was one of the staple foods that my community relied on, especially through hard winters,” says Roger LaBine, a member of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Harvested in late summer, manoomin is rich in protein, fiber, B vitamins, and zinc.
By the early 1900s, after centuries of colonization, wild rice beds were largely lost. Logging’s effects were particularly acute: Dams constructed to raise water levels and make it easier to float fallen trees downriver drowned the rice, which grows best along shallow banks. “The whole surface of rivers would be covered with logs. Any river rice that would grow was wiped out,” says Barb Barton, an aquatic resource specialist in the Michigan Department of Transportation and author of Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan.
Barton and LaBine are working to bring it back. Over the last few decades, their efforts have helped identify prime growing beds, organize harvesting workshops, and educate local populations on how activities like boating, swimming, and mining can disturb the plant. There are now 14 wild rice beds in Lac Vieux Desert Band ancestral territory, according to LaBine, with more to come across the region—allowing more people to experience manoomin’s earthy, nutty flavor. Barton eats hers with blueberries, cinnamon, and honey for breakfast. “It’s fantastic,” she says, “and it’s very versatile in terms of things you can make with it.”
[Related: “Why is it so expensive to eat sustainably?”]
Lest one forget the silky voice of Nat King Cole, chestnuts are delicious. Even unroasted with no open fire in sight, the American variety are a treat, full of fiber and vitamin C, with a rich, sweet flavor thanks to their fat content—higher than the chestnuts from some East Asian countries.
Roughly 120 years ago, forests from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean produced reliable bounties of the snacks. Yet today, much larger varieties from China and Japan are the norm. This difference in size proved to be the downfall of the American chestnut. “That’s how we got into this mess in the first place,” says Hill Craddock, president of the Tennessee chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.
Americans in the 1800s wanted big nuts, and Cryphonectria parasitica, a blight-causing fungus, likely hitched a ride on nursery stock of Japanese trees as early as 1876. The pathogen produces oxalate, an acid that attacks plants lacking the enzyme to neutralize it. Over the next 60 years, disease destroyed some 3 billion trees.
According to Craddock, who teaches biology, mycology, and dendrology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, many scholars consider the American chestnut functionally extinct. The blight doesn’t kill roots, so trunks can sprout back. But these plants—around 400 million of which still survive—are shrubby, and the sickness attacks when they grow. They don’t flower often enough to propagate, if they bloom at all.
Schemes to beat back the blight are well underway. A collaborative team at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse is editing lab-grown tree embryos with a gene from wheat that helps fight the fungus, and members of the American Chestnut Foundation are crossbreeding local and Chinese species. Hybrid stalks planted over the last decade across Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee are already producing thousands of chestnuts. The ultimate goal, Craddock says, is to restore the forest ecology of the Eastern US by adding millions of the engineered trees—and making their fruit plentiful to the animals, and humans, who once enjoyed it.
Sierra Beauty apple
There were once close to 17,000 apple varieties in North America, many of which traveled west on wagon trains (and actual trains) in the 1800s and early 1900s. Settlers carried cuttings and saplings that produced fruit they liked; when they reached wherever it was they were headed, they grafted trimmings onto existing trees or planted anew. Many of the fruits died out when encampments failed. In other cases, the westward bound simply did not bother to plant. Today, fewer than 5,000 of those original, heirloom apple breeds exist, and the ones still around are difficult to find.
Such was the story of the Sierra Beauty, a crisp pomme with buttery notes and an aroma strangely reminiscent of pineapples. The fruit itself is indigenous to California, was discovered around 1870 (some speculate near its namesake foothills), and eventually traveled north to become a mainstay of the Oregon Nursery Company. The firm closed due to financial troubles just before the Great Depression, leaving its signature apple to the history books.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that a group of heirloom enthusiasts “rediscovered” it at a small orchard near Mendocino, California. Turns out, proprietor George Studebaker had picked up a single tree on a wagon ride around the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1906.
Today, the Gowan family tends hundreds of rows of Sierra Beauty trees, which are sold at the farm and wholesale. Co-proprietor Sharon Gowan says the fruit’s firm flesh and sharp taste make it ideal for baking. And it’s particularly good for anyone interested in making hard ciders, which is how the orchard sells most of its Sierra Beauties today: squeezed, fermented, bottled, and chilled.
[Related: “Rerouting billions in agriculture subsidies could boost global food security”]