This summer, heirloom vegetables are popping up in some interesting and unusual places beyond the farms and restaurants participating in our RAFT Heirloom Grow-Out project. No longer consigned to Grandma’s garden or the farmers’ market, heirloom-variety vegetables have been gaining status lately not just as food, but as art. That’s right—that Boothby’s Blond cuke you were about to slice into your salad? Now touring with your favorite band! That stripey, knobby tomato? Now for auction alongside oil paintings!
This year’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee features a victory garden complete with heirloom vegetables and workshops on how to save seeds. A recent article describes how Bonnaroo gardeners are even developing their very own variety which they hope will be passed on down as an heirloom: the Bonnaroo Bean.
Meanwhile, famed international art auction house Sotheby’s is holding a high-end cocktail reception with heirloom produce on the auction block. The Art of Farming is a benefit event with proceeds going to sustainable agriculture organizations.
Food does have artistic qualities- any chef knows the importance of good visual presentation- but this also is speaking to another quality of art, which is stories, meaning, and cultural context. Treating heirloom produce as art highlights the rich stories behind each vegetable. A tomato on an art auction block is not just a commodity to be consumed; it is a representation of a long history of craftsmanship and careful work. A recent NYTimes article compares heirloom vegetables to heirloom furniture and books. Like other family heirlooms, an heirloom vegetable seed can be something of value, tended carefully in order to be passed down and shared through generations. And like other aspects of an arts and music festival, an heirloom bean represents independence, freedom, and a nod to history along with an eye towards the future.
On the other hand, the sustainable foods movement has been critiqued for elitism, and putting vegetables on the Sotheby’s auction block does nothing to disarm this critique.
What do you think about this intersection of food and art? Good news for the future of good food? Or does it just perpetuate the image of sustainable food as something elitist and out-of-reach? Share your thoughts in the comments!