Tomatoes were just the beginning. Now, heirlooms of all sorts seem to be cropping up all over.
Our agrarian ancestors may have heard of big blue squash or wooly pigs, but chances are we never saw one in person until the National Heirloom Expo.
Everything old seemed new again in this celebration of all- but-lost agriculture.
Held recently at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, the expo filled every pavilion with produce and wonder. In just its second year, the "world's pure food fair" had become an heirloom happening.
"It's gotten so much bigger," said spice seller Kim Cook Fallon of Cook's Spices in Santa Rosa. "Last year, we were in just two buildings. Now, the whole facility is packed. Clearly, more and more people are attracted to heirlooms and organics."
Homestead Seeds' Mac and Ginny Condill of Illinois brought a tractor-trailer rig full of rare squash enough to build a mountain.
"I've constructed several of these displays, but this is by far the largest," Mac Condill said of his 30-foot-tall ode to heirloom squash. "We grow more than 400 varieties from all over the world."
Condill's favorite: Vera Cruz pepita.
"The seeds are outstanding," he said. "I love the shape of this squash, the color (blue-green stripes on a cream shell), but it's the edible seeds that make it special. They're especially good and fun to grow."
The display, which weighed about 8,000 pounds, featured 1,600 pieces in 220 varieties.
"At home, we're trying to get people to not be afraid to eat it," Ginny Condill said of their squash. "Here in California, everybody seems a lot more receptive. They're really interested."
Organized by the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. and the Petaluma Seed Bank, the expo featured thousands of little-known vegetable and fruit varieties, many dating back hundreds of years.
"Farm-to-table is really hot right now and it's not going away," Mac Condill said. "It's absolutely fantastic. People want to know where their food comes from. There's this novel idea: We can grow our own food! It's high time it's here."
Throughout the pavilions were cornucopias of eye-popping produce: Mounds of melons, pyramids of pumpkins, cascades of fancy peppers and tables laced with near-black indigo tomatoes.
But this fancy feast was far from all-vegetarian. Included in the mix were displays of "heirloom" farm animals, with pedigrees packed with tradition.
Chickens of every feather clucked contentedly as visitors debated which kind of birds were best to add to their backyard flocks. Dozens of "heritage turkeys" the big, brown kind familiar to Ben Franklin and our other forefathers preened in their enclosures. Curly haired sheep grazed in their paddock.
Squeals of delight met the stars of the heirloom barnyard Mangalitsa piglets.
Nine weeks old, the swallow-belly piglets entertained a stream of visitors. Their two-tone coats will grow out in fleece like sheep.
"They're fun, they're up and coming, and they're delicious," said farmer Tim Winkler of Winkler Wooly Pigs in Windsor.
Winkler brought some of the first Mangalitsa pigs to California earlier this year, he said. Their rich, red pork is a gourmet favorite.
"They're incredible animals," Winkler said. "They're a true breed that was never modified. They're a completely different pig."
Besides someday becoming gourmet fodder, the pigs fit into earth-friendly farming.
"They eat invasive species," Winkler said. "You can also 'pig- erate' your garden at the end of the season; they root around and clean everything up. They're very people-oriented, too. We're using them for all the right purposes. It's a no-brainer."
New 'M Brace'
Woodland's Jill Plumb was among the exhibitors at the Heirloom Expo with the newest addition to her Art of the Garden line M Brace Mezzo.
Manufactured locally, the metal supports make constructing raised vegetable beds extra easy; just slide boards into the slots, no tools required.
The 10-inch supports can hold three stacked 2x4s on each side to form a foot-high bed in minutes.
"It's just the right height for most raised beds a foot deep," Plumb explained. "They're less expensive, too. We listened to what customers wanted. We got it right."
A set of four M Brace Mezzo brackets retails for $97.99. (Find them at www.artofthegarden.net.)
Plumb's invention continues to earn fans nationwide. The carrot-cutout M Brace is featured this month on the cover of Country Gardens, a Better Homes & Gardens publication.
"That was a surprise," Plumb said, "and really exciting."