The Heirloom Harvest Project
How a celebration of the past is saving the future of food on the Seacoast
Long before the phrase “farm to table” was in vogue, before concern over genetically modified and engineered foods hit the mainstream, and before terms like seed-saving, biodiversity, and heirloom were common in the American lexicon, Evan Mallett, chef and owner of the Black Trumpet Bistro in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, had a vision.
“I had always wanted to have a dinner in a barn that brought together chefs and farmers,” Mallett recalled. “I didn’t have a particular purpose in mind, I simply couldn’t shake the idea that these two groups should come together.” Unbeknownst to him, other forces were at work in the Seacoast community and elsewhere that would shape Mallett’s vision and lead to the formation of The Heirloom Harvest Project.
The Chef’s Collaborative, a Boston-based national organization, was one of these forces. The goal of The Chef’s Collaborative is to make sustainability second nature in the culinary community and “fix our broken food system by engaging chefs in a network that inspires and educates them to change how they source, cook, and serve food.” Mallett, a member of the board of directors for The Chef’s Collaborative, shared his vision of a farm dinner. The Collaborative had the budget, staff, and infrastructure to support his idea; they just needed a farm.
Enter Josh Jennings, owner of Meadow’s Mirth, an expansive organic farm located on an idyllic hilltop in Stratham, New Hampshire. Jennings had been informally supplying Mallett and the Black Trumpet with fresh produce and herbs from Meadow’s Mirth for a few years.
“You have to see my barn,” Jennings recalled telling Mallett. Jennings was privy to Mallett’s dream dinner. “It’s a perfect venue to have a dinner with chefs and farmers.” The seeds for a chef/farmer gathering began to take root once Mallett saw the traditional New England barn.
Serendipitously, during the same time Mallett, Jennings, and the Chef’s Collaborative were in talks, Slow Foods USA had initiated a project called “Restoring America’s Food Traditions” (RAFT), known now as The Ark of Taste. RAFT’s mission is to save indigenous food systems by bringing together local farmers, chefs, fishermen, agricultural historians, ranchers, nurserymen, and conservation activists to exchange information, tell the stories about the history of regional food and food producers, and educate the public about food biodiversity. Through RAFT, communities of food producers throughout the country publish lists of endangered regional foods, informing consumers about threats to these foods and where seeds, nursery stock, or seafood and livestock hatchlings can be purchased to aid in their recovery.
RAFT was alive and well in the Portsmouth area through Slow Food Seacoast, co-founded by John Forti, former curator of landscapes for the Strawbery Banke Museum. As a leader in the RAFT movement and a food and farming historian, Forti also had a vision to save the seeds of heirloom food crops.
“Throughout history, open-pollinated heirloom seeds were freely handed down and adapted to place by our ancestors,” Forti explains. “They selected for seasonal diversity, disease resistance, maximum production and flavor. After WWII, major chemical companies bent on selling patented hybrids developed for profit and agribusiness centralized in the mid-west bought out most of our regional seed houses. Regional variations and flavors of our place-based food crops were lost to nameless cellophane wrapped tomatoes, red “delicious” apples, and a narrow selection of produce selected for ease of shipping and long shelf life. Thousands of flavorful and nutritious regional greens were replaced by iceberg lettuce. Fortunately, we have lived to see the resurgence of local farming and farmers markets, where the flavor of sun-ripened tomatoes, arugula, kale, and beets have reminded us why cultivating heirlooms is an investment into food security, the health of our environment, and our families.”
Mallett, also on the board of directors for Slow Food Seacoast, hosted one of RAFT’s annual meetings at The Black Trumpet.
“These meetings were fascinating,” recalled Evan’s wife, Denise Mallett, owner of Stock + Spice and co-owner of Black Trumpet. “People spread heirloom seeds all over tables in the dining room and discussed the history and significance of each seed. There were hundreds of lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes and more I had never heard of and didn’t know existed. Yet, these people were sharing them with one another as a way to educate people about the importance of restoring biodiversity to our local foods community.”
Evan Mallett had an epiphany. What if RAFT were to partner with the barn dinner?
What if chefs and farmers committed to increasing biodiversity in the food system by sharing seeds at the dinners?
What if farmers at the dinner promised to plant those seeds to supply crops for attending chefs? And what if those chefs committed to use the heirloom crops grown by farmers in their restaurants?
Mallett imagined that indigenous heirloom varieties could then become an integral part of the Seacoast culinary community – increasing diversity and restoring the area’s food traditions; educating the public about crops heretofore unheard of.
“RAFT’s meetings at our restaurant helped us put into words what we wanted to do with the barn dinners but had not yet articulated as a message,” notes Denise Mallett. “It made perfect sense to join the missions.”
RAFT was a willing partner. According to Forti, “the goal of the barn dinner is to bring each diner’s attention from the plate to the chefs in the kitchen, to the farmers in the field, and to those who have come before as a way of connecting the dining experience to the significance of “at-risk” produce on the barn dinner menu.” Displays in the barn have featured the connections underlying the dinner – the farmers who grew the food, the chefs who prepared it, and the produce or meat itself – along with descriptions of the historical, agricultural, and gastronomical significance of each item to New Englanders’ own history.
While the backbone of the Heirloom Harvest Project remains a yearly gathering of chefs and farmers, the project has evolved from the humble first meetings organized by the Chef’s Collaborative to a Seacoast institution of its own. Coordinated by a team that includes the original founders, Evan and Denise Mallett, Josh Jennings, and John Forti, the Harvest Heirloom Project has grown to include a second, less formal gathering called the Farm-a-Q.
“Farm-a-Q was born to bring the idea of the barn dinner to a wider audience that includes families and friends that might not be able to afford it,” said Mallet. “The goal of connecting farmers, chefs, and consumers is the same but the atmosphere is a little more accessible and appealing to some.”
In addition to the two events, Jennings has dedicated a sizeable area of his farm to an Heirloom Harvest Project garden at Meadow’s Mirth. The garden, managed by Jenna Rozelle, produces heirloom crops from which seeds are saved and shared year after year. “In February of each year, all participating project chefs and farmers convene in one room,” explains Mallett. “We discuss the selected heirloom crops for the year, assign and distribute heirloom seeds to the farmers, and determine the theme for the Barn Dinner and Farm-a-Q.”
Rozelle is excited to show off this year’s five-page list of heirlooms, comprising both hundreds of seeds saved from last year’s garden as well as trail heirlooms such as sugar beets and cherry quinoa. Asked about quinoa as an indigenous food, Rozelle explained, “We have expanded our repertoire of heirloom seeds to include heirlooms from areas with similar climates and growing conditions. In the case of quinoa, we also felt it was important to help relieve production in countries for whom it is a staple crop that has become inaccessible because of outside demand.”
According to Mallett, the dinner has spawned others like it, near and far. “In my role as cofounder of Heirloom Harvest Project,” he noted, “I have responded to many emails from as far away as Kenya, where a gentleman named Alex Kiprop has begun his own heirloom harvest project to ensure that some of the fruits and grains indigenous to his area are not forgotten in the wake of the introduction of GMO monoculture crops like wheat and corn.”
Mallett’s original vision of bringing together chefs and farmers might have seemed novel at the time, but it reflected a return to traditions of a bygone era, when whole communities gathered around a common need – food – and where growing and breaking bread together defined a geographical area. “Rediscovering our agricultural heritage is imperative to our survival and to the survival of wildlife,” noted Forti. “Unless we increase the biodiversity of our food system through backyard gardens and community gatherings like the Barn Dinner and Farm-a-Q, we risk a diminished future for our children.”
“Saving our food system is both an overwhelming and a simple concept,” added Evan Mallett. “It all begins and ends with seeds.”