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?
Just 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.
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.
[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.]