Book Review: ‘Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods’ by Jennifer A. Jordan

edible memory

“Why should the edible biodiversity I found at the market become a subject for a book by a sociologist and not just ingredients for a pleasurable dinner?”

This sentence from the introduction of “Edible Memory” from Jennifer A. Jordan is the perfect starting point for this intricate yet very readable anthropological study of heirloom foods.

Jordan, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, begins her book by outlining an experience that so many of us have had: encountering heirloom foods as an adult. Her introduction on the definition of what she calls “edible memory” explores food memories both old and new — from the Twinkies of childhood to the heirloom tomatoes whose cultural memory is far more extensive, yet whose individual memory may not be so well forged.

In fact, this idea of cultural versus individual edible memory is examined at length. How, for instance, did tomatoes come to be seen as Italian when they are natively grown in South America? Why has America become associated with apples? These questions and more are explored over the course of six specific chapters dedicated to different foods and ideas.

The first three chapters explore three foods that are frequently considered to be heirloom — tomatoes, apples and root vegetables. These chapters explore the history of these foods up to and including their current heirloom nature and how they earned this label. This historic exploration of foods that have become commonplace offers interesting points of reflection for anyone who has paid more for an heirloom tomato in recent years.

The book also devotes chapters to  two other themes: that of the “mobile vegetable” and that of that delicate line between local and exotic. The first discusses the globalization of produce, though not in any way the average shopper may be thinking of it. Jordan delves, for example, into the history of cassava and its place in the slave trade, the development of a taste for pepper in Spain and Hungary after it was imported from the colonies and the East.

The last chapter explores the loss of such local fruits as plums, often used for plum brandy throughout the world and which used to cover much of California’s Santa Clara Valley, only to be replaced by tract homes. These local losses are contrasted with the increased popularity of imports like tropical fruits, which very rarely receive an heirloom label, no matter how culturally or historically significant they may be.

In each chapter, Jordan poses particularly poignant questions regarding, for example, the trajectory of heirloom tomatoes from nonexistent to something so popular that they are out of the financial purview of the very farmers who grow them, to a nearly over-used, bland and unexciting omnipresence on the market. These questions demand that we ask our own questions about our foodie habits — why do we choose the foods we choose, and how rooted are these foods in our own memories? Jordan’s brief personal introductions to each chapter keep the reader rooted in the personal nature of food memory.

The book concludes with a particularly poignant and poetic image of the durability of fruit trees, their edible memory ensconced in the soil — and a warning against romanticizing foods, especially heirloom foods, something we’re all wont to do. The study encourages learning more about the heirloom foods we’ve come to love, but it also paints an appetizing picture of the memories some of us would rather forget: the Kraft Dinners or Devil Dogs of our youth.

Jordan proposes that we advocate for change in the food world, for the forging of new cultural culinary memories all while conserving the permanence and importance, if not the contemporariness, of our personal food memories.

Edible Memory is available via the University of Chicago Press.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.