The Virginia Food Heritage Project recognizes food as part of cultural identity and cultural heritage. Recognizing that heritage encompasses the origins of plants and animals and their dispersal, as well as the locations where people have historically processed, prepared, exchanged, sold, or consumed foods, we seek to document the connection between the food we eat, the land it comes from, and the people who produce it.
Specifically, our project encompasses locally produced foods tied to the region’s history and cultural identity. In addition, recognizing that few of us have deep decades-long connections to the places where we now live, we will also seek to highlight the contributions of newcomers, innovators, and adaptors to the local “foodshed.”
Accordingly, our informants will generally fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Heritage informants: those with at least a grandparent generation in the heritage area.
- Professional informants: “new farmers,” chefs, extension agents, and others working in professions related to the inquiry.
- Academic informants: those who work in academic disciplines related to the inquiry.
- Innovators and enthusiasts: those with a passion though not necessarily a family connection or professional affiliation.
Our commitment to preserving our cultural heritage includes a commitment to the preservation of our physical environment through supporting and promoting sustainable systems of agriculture and the use of traditional seeds and agriculture that combine the best of the past and the present.
A Few Food Definitions
Heirloom vegetables are cultivars (cultivated varieties) that meet three criteria:
- They are older than 1945 (dates vary, but I like this one because it allows us to capture the Victory Garden varieties).
- They are open-pollinated (meaning they come true from saved seed).
- They have an established provenance through families, regions, and more rarely through now-defunct seed companies or university breeding programs (like the Rutgers tomato).
Heritage vegetables are pretty much the same thing as heirlooms, with the added condition that the breeds have ethnic or cultural significance–like Romano beans in Italy or Fish pepper for African Americans in the Chesapeake region.
In the U.S., it’s more common to use heritage to refer to animal breeds, and when the term is applied it indicates:
- Unique genetic traits
- Bred to withstand disease
- Adapted to environmental conditions
Most heritage breed associations also include requirements such as these:
- Recognized as breed since at least 1925 (dates vary)
- Endangered or rare
- Living on pasturage, rather than raised in “industrial” conditions