Heirloom Tomato Seed Carries Chicago Family History

Festival friend and ancient grains presenter Vicki Nowicki has this amazing heirloom tomato story to tell:

How did the Inciardi’s Paste tomato seed come to be in your hands?

Inciardi's PasteJust by coincidence, a neighbor of a friend, John Inciardi, gave me a humongous paste tomato 20 years ago. He told me that his father had come to the United States with his entire family from Sicily in 1900 and they settled in Chicago. At that time I didn’t know what an heirloom tomato was or how to save seeds. He told me to squeeze out the seeds when I was done eating the tomato onto a paper towel and I would be able to plant them the following year. It worked! Of course years went by and I learned a lot more about his family history and heirlooms. I have now become an advocate for heirloom and open-pollinated seeds and I have a small community of gardeners who are growing this special tomato which is well adapted to Chicago and its fluctuating weather patterns, especially the heat and the droughts.

John and his wife have long ago passed away and his two children moved to California with no interest in gardening. I suspect that a simple lack of awareness, like that on the part of John’s sons, could account for some of the loss of diversity that has occurred since 1900. More than 90% of the biodiversity of vegetable varieties has vanished over the last 100 years for many and varied reasons. This massive loss is being called the 6th Great Extinction. I realized that I am probably the only one left growing this tomato so I decided to nominate it to the International Slow Food Ark of Taste.  And it was accepted!

What is the Ark of Taste?

The Ark of Taste is a subset of foods within Slow Food International that are quite special, often historic, associated culturally throughout a period of time with a regional group, or they might be growing regionally and now are being environmentally threatened. There are all kinds of circumstances that may arise which cause a special food to become endangered. Let’s say it is a prepared food and the producers are retiring and no one is going to take over for them. Sometimes they are a native plant or a breed of animal. The foods are sought out and preserved and protected.

Do you know anything more about the Inciardi family’s tomato seed?

John told me that his father Henry Inciardi had come with his family as an older boy to the United States from Italy in 1900. Like many families, they brought their entire food supply in the form of seeds but were afraid the seeds would be confiscated at Ellis Island, so everyone was enlisted to sew them all into their clothing – their coat lining, their pant legs, their underwear and so forth. Henry had told his son John that story many times and that they went through Ellis Island with butterflies in their stomachs.

Vicki Nowicki

Vicki Nowicki

How did it fall to you to name the tomato?

When I got the tomato, I just happened to be a good friend of David Cavagnaro who was, at the time, vegetable photographer and curator of the tomato collection at the Seed Savers Exchange, the most well-respected heirloom seed company in the world. Now, I say I didn’t know anything about heirlooms, that is essentially true, but I had a lot of friends who did. I sent David a picture of the tomato and asked him if he could identify it and tell me the name?  He said that they didn’t have one exactly like it and the ones that were similar were not named varieties. So David suggested that I just give it a name myself!  So, 20 years ago, I naively named it ‘Ellis Island’ thinking that that was the most important memory John and his family had of that tomato.

It doesn’t look like that name stuck.

When I nominated the tomato to The Ark of Taste, the “old timers” on our committee, David Cavagnaro included, protested and said that my name was “too vague” and recommended that I change it to a more respectable name. Hence, the formulaic name – family name plus tomato type equals “Inciardi’s Paste”.

I forgot to tell you that when Henry (the father) grew up and got married he went to work for Western Electric. One day his company threw a picnic for their employees. They hired a ship, had it docked in the Chicago River for a cruise, but when all 1500 employees rushed the ship, it capsized. The ship was the Eastland; the year was 1915. Henry and his wife had walked right into the middle of the infamous Eastland Disaster in Chicago. Henry, a good swimmer, survived to grow his tomato another summer. His wife, Antoinette, drowned along with 800 others. Henry remarried and had a son John who moved to Downers Grove where he hand-delivered his tomato to me. You can still find his name, Henry Inciardi, on the survivor list online for the Eastland disaster.

So, the tomato is well adapted to Chicago summers having grown here since 1900.

Any other local heirloom stories you’re working on?

Well, today, I am extremely well versed in heirlooms. In fact just last week I discovered two more immigrant varieties of garlic from Poland that have been growing here in the Midwest since around 1900 without having spread beyond each of their respective home neighborhoods.

Learn more about Slow Food’s Ark of Taste and the importance of biodiversity here.

 

[Vicki Nowicki is an award-winning vegetable gardener, a published author, a teacher and a devoted environmentalist. Degreed in Horticulture, Environmental Studies, Environmental Education and Museum Exhibit Research and Design, she has focused her 35 year-career on homeowners, believing that part of the future of American agriculture could lie in the backyards of our suburban homes. These tiny “farms” would require less fossil fuels and chemicals, would produce less waste, could be more diverse and would supply something that industrial ag will never give us: happiness, self-satisfaction and family inter-action. Read more about Vicki and her Liberty Gardens Project here.]

 

Four Ways You Can Make A Difference

The wonderful thing about the Good Food Festival is that it is a community gathering. Consumers meet farmers meet wholesale buyers and funders…and we all learn that at the root of all this wonderful regional foodshed building are people. So if you came, you met Keith from K & A Organic Roots farm; and Julia from Peasant’s Plot; and Maribeth, Breanne, Jennifer, Teresa, Dave, Josh and LaManda from Peterson Garden Project; and Mike from The Mike Nowak Show. They are people – your friends, your community – and they are building, growing, teaching and laughing at our food system.

And right this minute, they need your help to push their wonderful work forward. They each have crowdfunding campaigns running now that need your support. Your contribution builds the Good Food world you want!

Keith Clute and future farmers!

Keith Clute and future farmers!

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Build A Barn!

Keith and his partner Ann of K & A Organic Roots lost their 100 year old barn to a fire in January. Help them build a new barn to process and store their organic produce before it ships to Chicagoans who need and want this Good Food! Follow this link to do your part.

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Support and receive the Peasant's Plot calendar, illustrated by Julia!

Support and receive the Peasant’s Plot calendar, illustrated by Julia!

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Vegetables Are People, Too

Julia and her husband Todd at Peasant’s Plot bring CSA veggies to town and they have some infrastructure improvements they’d like to make to be more efficient. Supporting them could also mean you get the cool, Julia-illustrated veggie calendar or, for a larger donation, you get Rent-A-Todd – farmer Todd comes to your backyard garden to give organic growing advice! Follow this link to do your part. Deadline is April 28.

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Fearless.

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Fearless In ’14

You know and love LaManda and crew at the Peterson Garden Project. Now they ‘re opening the Fearless Food Teaching Kitchen in the Broadway Armory. As you see in their hilarious video though, they need some funds to stock the kitchen with, well, pots, pans and other vital kitchen utensils. Help them buy a whisk! Save Chef Jeff from the embarrassment of mixing eggs on the counter for lack of a bowl! Watch, laugh, and do your part here. Deadline is April 19.

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illustration by Allyson Hunter

illustration by Allyson Hunter

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Attack of the Killer Asparagus

Maybe you feel the gardening and food world takes itself a little too seriously. For you, we have Mike Nowak and his irreverent garden writings culled from his years of writing for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine. His witty writing comes together in his new book, Attack of the Killer Asparagus. If that title isn’t enough for you, here’s a snippet:

“It’s important to be able to identify the various levels of shade. The horticultural texts are always referring to “dappled shade.” Who are those people? Have they been spending their Sundays in the park with George? Are they looking at the world through dappled-shaded glasses? Real gardeners know that there is no such thing as “dappled shade.” In the real world, gardeners confront “3-flat shade,” “skyscraper canyon shade,” “can’t see my trowel in front of my face shade,” “forget about it shade,” “not even a stalagmite will grow here shade,” “dark as an advertising executive’s heart shade,” and “abandon hope all ye who enter here shade.” Not pretty choices, if you ask me.”

Follow this link to assure your copy of Mike’s book! Deadline is April 1.

 

 

 

 

Celebrating 10 Years!

Ten years ago, FamilyFarmed.org launched the Good Food Festival & Conference, which at the time was the first and only local, sustainable food and farm trade show in America. As peoples’ interest in eating healthful, local foods and supporting local food-based economies has grown, the Good Food Festival & Conference has grown too!

We’re so excited and proud to bring you what we know will be the best Good Food Festival & Conference yet! Thanks to our good friends at Media 4 Community for this short retrospective of the past decade of Good Food. They’ve captured on this short video the essence of what we do and why, and we couldn’t be happier to share it with all of you.

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