5@5 - Chef Sean Brock
August 26th, 2010
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Eggtocracy coverage to take a look at the greener side of life.

Sean Brock is the executive chef of the historic McCrady's Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, where his modern farm-to-table cuisine most recently earned him the 2010 James Beard "Best Chef Southeast" award.

As a passionate champion for replenishing those varieties of crops at risk of dying out, Brock currently tends to one and one-half acres on Thornhill Farm in McClellanville, South Carolina, where he plants and grows a number of heirloom crops. As we explained earlier, "Heirloom seeds come from plants that have remained genetically unchanged and have been open-pollinated (by insects, birds, wind, etc.) for at least 50 - or some say 100 - years. This means no hybridizing with other varieties of plants."

He's on a mission to bring vanishing vegetables back to the table, and here to tell you why.

Five Reasons to Use Heirloom Ingredients: Sean Brock

1. They taste better.
"Imagine the first time you tasted an heirloom tomato. Think about how different that tasted from what you thought heirloom tomatoes tasted like. People that don’t like tomatoes actually realize that what we had at a fast food location is NOT what tomatoes are supposed to taste like."

2. They tell stories.
"These ingredients tell stories about families, regions and the lessons we’ve learned from everyone else. They tell history. They tell about time and place. They enlighten us. Learning about crops like benne and how connected they are to Southern agriculture is amazing and so inspirational as a chef."

3. They taste, look and feel like vegetables are supposed to.
"Okra has been genetically modified so that okra doesn’t have to be picked every day. It has been modified for our convenience. Heirloom vegetables are pure and have not been modified for human purposes, and it shows in their flavor."

4. They have cool names.
"Ham and gravy crowder peas, Reverend Taylor butter beans, rattlesnake pole beans, Jimmy Red corn, greasy grit beans, wild goose beans."

5. They come in cooler colors.
"I’ve got a tattoo on my left arm of over twenty of my favorite vegetables, from ramps to corn to a batch of heirloom carrots that I just got done. It’s beautiful to see the different colors and hues of the vegetables that I’m able to pull out of the garden."

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Bite • Gardening • Heirloom • Ingredients • Sean Brock • Southern • Think

soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. GetReal

    Heirloom tastes MUCH better.

    January 17, 2014 at 7:47 pm |
  2. ATL Cook

    I grew several varieties of heirloom tomatoes–ate some of them as I walked to the house from the garden. Talk about local and fresh~~no salt needed.

    August 29, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
  3. Russ

    If by "heirloom ingredients" you mean those cans of rosemary, thyme, and crab boil that have been in my spice cabinet since the Truman Administration, then I'm all set.

    August 29, 2010 at 8:16 pm |
  4. Lisa

    I love heirloom tomatoes but I don't know where to get some in my area. I had some at my sister's house recently in NC. I wish there were more farmers markets around. I am so tired of spending my money on "junk produce" from my local grocery store. They NEVER have fresh cucumbers. I bought the best looking one I could find, placed it in my produce bin inside my fridge and when I got it out 2 days later it was covered in white mold! Gross! Obviously it was so passed it's shelf life by the time I bought it, it was ready to spoil and it did. I would love to stop wasting money on such junk and would gladly spend more for tastier fruits and veggies that are so delicious I would probably eat them as soon as I got them home.

    August 28, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
    • Druig

      Lisa, have you looked into any local CSA options (Community Shares Agriculture)? If you're unfamiliar with the process, they tend to be local or near local farms where you buy a 'share' of the produce up front at the beginning of the growing season. Then each week of the growing season they will deliver (of have a local pick up point) your share of a variety of what was harvested that week. I had a share from a CSA farm several years ago. Due to life schedules we honestly were getting far more produce than we could use. It was fresh and more flavorful than store-bought produce from corporate farms.

      August 29, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  5. The_Mick

    The unmentioned reason for heirlooms is "I can charge more for them!" I order my own seeds each winter and grow some heirloom tomatoes each year. My favorite is Branywine -which has potato plant-like leaves. But my OVERALL favorites are MODERN hybrids Supersonic and Jet Star, which grow delicious, stay-firm, large, plentiful tomatoes on indeterminate vines that -in most area- last well into the Fall.

    August 28, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • massbytes

      Agree with you on the Brandywine, they are great. My favorite though is Arkansas Traveler...very prolific and very tart. I will try your new varieties (thanks for the names)...because whatever I have to grow to get a good tomato is worth it.

      August 29, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  6. Spoonless Eddie

    Our produce didn't get hybridized yesterday. If you're not old enough to remember what 'real' corn or tomatoes taste like, you probably think this is BS.

    August 27, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  7. Carl

    I'll give you 4 and 5 if you're into "cool" names. I'm not. Number 2 has nothing to do with food as much as personality. I like food, but I don't incorporate it into my personal philosophy of life beyond liking to eat. The last heirloom veggie I ate never said a word about history or family or anyhting else for that matter. As for 1 and 3, please tell me who determines what food is "supposed to taste like"?

    August 27, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
  8. Marko

    Is San Marzano tomato a heirloom? We get it sometimes here, great for sauces, all canned tomatoes in Italy are San Marzano variety.

    August 27, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  9. sha

    http://www.seedsavers.org/ has a wonderful selection of seeds. I have a vegetable garden and every year I try to grow something new. I grow mostly heirlooms because in general I just think they taste better and are more interesting. It's fun to eat an orange tomato or black tomato. Just something different that you don't see in the market.

    August 27, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  10. Christine

    Speaking of heirlooms, what about 5@5 with the Brass Sisters? They are based in Boston and they are adorable and SKILLED in the kitchen. I saw them on Bobby Flay's Throwdown.

    August 27, 2010 at 10:26 am |
  11. Andi

    OMG – His tat is beautiful. Personally – I don't have much yard, but what I do have I wouldn't grow anythign else except heirloom veggies. They make an interesting and beautiful garden and I don't have to pay the grocer for as much food. I live across the street from a middle school and the kids and their parents are always coming by to look at my front yard. I usually have enough produce to share as well which makes me happy, and hopefully the kids get a little interested in growing their own food as well. Since I live in a large city – most have never seen purple tomatoes or white ones. It makes for interesting conversation.

    August 27, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  12. Joe

    In India, a small village farmer sold me some farm fresh cauliflowers – they were kind of yellow and much much smaller than the ones we get at the super market – but man they had a distinct aroma that I still cant forget to this day. I never knew the real cauliflower had taste and aroma, the ones we get at the supermarkets is genetic junk.

    August 27, 2010 at 9:13 am |
  13. Les

    august heirlooms in new england... amazing flavor... grab the salt shaker and enjoy!

    August 27, 2010 at 8:43 am |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      That's the best way to enjoy a tomato, ever! I buy tomatos just to eat them like that. Slice 'em up, 'coat' them with salt, enjoy. Now my mouth is watering.

      August 27, 2010 at 8:54 am |
      • RichardHead

        Mornin-Gonna try to stay out of trouble today-Don't wanna get Moderator Time out. Had some of my best posts deleted.

        August 27, 2010 at 9:12 am |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        Really? Not mine. See "Mohammed" posts are still up. X)

        August 27, 2010 at 9:19 am |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        And someone posted twice posing as me with some stupid stuff.

        August 27, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  14. ksmith

    Get to know the local greenhouse where you buy your starter plants in the spring. Many have older varieties and heirloom varieties available. Just because you don't recognize the name of a variety doesn't make it genetically altered or heirloom. Talk. Ask questions. Request items you would like to purchase next year if they are not available this year. And keep a small section of your garden for a different variety of your favorite veggie to sample if you would like to raise it or not. I have a wide selection of modern and heirloom varieties. There are bonuses to both as well as cons.

    August 27, 2010 at 8:04 am |
  15. Jonathan

    Okra has NOT been genetically modified. That quote is misleading and should be removed! Look it up if you don't believe me. There is NO transgenic okra commercially available. Maybe he means that genetically different varieties exist now. But that is like saying Sean Brock has been genetically modified to be different from his parents.

    August 27, 2010 at 7:36 am |
  16. kimberly

    I'm not really sold on these heirloom tomatoes. I don't think they taste so great. I'm not convinced of their pedigree either. I think they just seem to be the latest relatively healthy food that is 'chic' for the moment. There seems to be a lot of hype about them in every publication recently and I'm personally getting sick of hearing it. I'm like, "OMG, enough already with those damn tomatoes!" In my local newspaper, there have been about ten articles in the past month alone! I think these tomatoes are just having a public relations field day.

    August 27, 2010 at 12:47 am |
    • Kiki

      Completely disagree. They've been around for a long time, but only having their time in the sun because people are getting fed up with factory-farmed produce and discovering how tomatoes should taste.

      Try an heirloom carrot sometime. They're incredible.

      August 27, 2010 at 9:17 am |
    • robot chop

      kiki is right, the 98% crap you buy at the store has zero flavor and not much more nutritional value. for instance, most of the commercially available tomatoes are picked well before peak ripeness and gassed to achieve the red color, and then coated in petroleum to preserve freshness. not a tomato.

      August 27, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
  17. robot chop

    sean brock is the f-ing man. i really admire his work a lot. glad he won the beard for the southeast, he was by far the most deserving of the candidates. keep up the excellent work chef. if you have the chance to eat at mccrady's when in charleston, by all means do so. it is one of the best meals you will ever have in my opinion.

    August 26, 2010 at 10:58 pm |
  18. Dan R

    Thank you for sharing – and also to CNN for publishing – this appreciation of real food.

    August 26, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
  19. heather

    his tattoo: http://www.postandcourier.com/photos/galleries/2010/jul/07/chef-tattoos/11383/

    August 26, 2010 at 10:29 pm |
  20. Ash

    Do you have a picture of his tattoo?? I'd love to see it...

    August 26, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  21. Joe

    I don't think it's accurate to say that vegetables that have been open pollinated haven't been genetically modified. Watch the documentary Food, Inc. and see what happened to soybean fields that were open pollinated and ended up being cross-pollinated with beans from genetically modified crops in adjoining fields (and then the apparent legal nightmares that ensued).

    August 26, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
    • LaLa

      Cross pollinated and genetically modified are NOT the same thing.

      August 26, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
      • JMac

        No, but in the instance to which Joe is referring, the pollen of Monsanto GMO soybeans blew into a neighboring field, genetically corrupting the non-GMO soybeans that had been planted, and allowing Monsanto to bring suit against the farmer for "patent infringement". So, in this case, due to proximity, the non-GMO were genetically modified as well.

        August 27, 2010 at 8:36 am |
    • Tim

      At the same time, and for the record I do understand what Mr. Brock is trying to say, isn't it inaccurate to say his open-pollinated heirlooms "have remain genetically unchanged"?

      Insects flying from plant to plant don't normally discriminate based on plant variety, so surely there is some natural hybridization going on via the pollination process...?

      September 17, 2010 at 7:23 am |
  22. AGeek

    I'll only grow from seed and from heirloom/non-GMO sources. They flat out taste better. I'm not trying to be a commercial farm, so why should I trade off flavor & quality? I start seeds indoors in late winter, which mentally snaps me out of those long, dark days, and I've got decently sized transplants ready to go once the weather is right! It's a win all the way around!

    August 26, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
  23. AgentFrank

    I agree. I have had progressivly poorer vegitables from my garden these last 10 years, and this years tomatoes and peppers are a bust. These starters came from the factory greenhouse up the road, and have convinced me to do it from seed the way my grandparents, and my parents did. I'm lucky that my Mom still plants the same tomatoes from seed each year that my grandparents did 50 years ago. They saved a couple each year for the seeds, and it carries on. I guess it is my turn.

    August 26, 2010 at 8:15 pm |
    • LaLa

      And those tomatoes will that came from your forefathers will taste like a bit of heaven. Not to mention they will grow better as well.

      August 26, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
    • Jonathan

      I would suspect it is more likely that you have a pathogen or nutrient issue in your garden, if your harvest has gotten progressively poorer.

      August 27, 2010 at 7:40 am |
      • laurab68

        My best suggestion is to make your own compost this year and use it in your garden next year. You would be surprised what you can put in compost. Just know that cucumber seeds and tomato seeds that get put in the compost will start tto sprout next year all over your garden and just transfer the little guys to where you want them when they are bit enough. Enjo!

        August 27, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  24. sam

    only write articles that make great sense

    August 26, 2010 at 8:09 pm |
  25. Paul

    I'll remember this next time I want to pay $10 for a head of lettuce.

    August 26, 2010 at 8:06 pm |
    • MP

      Kind of a ridiculous exaggeration. I've never seen any variety of lettuce over $4 and that's organic or heirloom and off season.

      August 27, 2010 at 8:19 am |
      • Cory

        @ MP,

        You just made the point for Paul. $4.00 for a head of lettuce is RIDICULOUS. Who really wants to afford that? I bet you can't tell the difference between that and the $1.00 variety.

        August 28, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
      • c

        I heard on the radio that if crops are harvested by legal workers rather than illegal migrant workers your lettuce could cost A LOT more.

        August 29, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  26. Menage a' foie

    It makes me a bit sad that we now call these vegetables 'heirloom'.

    August 26, 2010 at 7:24 pm |
    • Martin

      @Menage a' foie – Why? Heirloom is just something passed down from one generation to the next without significant changes. An heirloom quilt, or a piece of jewelry, or a music box. This food is unadulterated and, as the article points out, harkens back to a time before intentional genetic modification of food.

      If your family had passed down a record player for 90 years, and you decided to pawn it and get an iPod, just because both devices play music doesn't make your iPod an heirloom.

      I think Chef Brock is trying to emphasize that food with a purer history is significantly different from what you'll find in the produce section of your local mega mart, or wrapped in McPaper.

      August 26, 2010 at 8:08 pm |
    • Spoonless Eddie

      It will be sadder if we call them "extinct." And we are close.

      August 27, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
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