Friday, August 26, 2005

Tomatoes of Heritage

The community garden, nestled at the edge of the city, was a veritable beehive of activity. Grandparents talked enthusiastically with each other, proudly displaying visiting grandchildren and garden produce to each other.

One particularly precocious young lad of about ten years of age attentively followed his grandmother’s conversation with her adjacent garden-plot renter. “Oh, we can’t wait each day to see if any of our tomatoes are ready to be picked,” said Grandma. Stooping over to pluck a striped, green tomato from the fuzzy vine that left its pungent aroma on her well-worn gardening gloves, she added, “It’s always such a pleasure to find well-ripened ones.”

The adjacent gardener furrowed his brows. Perhaps Grandma had developed a recent case of color-blindness. Or maybe she had just been out in the sun a little too long. Or possibly she was making a batch of fried-green tomatoes? How could he stop her from picking those still-green tomatoes from their vine-y support system?

The attentive ten-year-old boy noticed the other gardener’s concern. “Oh, it’s alright Mr. Jones,” he whispered brightly, “these are grandma’s green zebras and they’re a heritage!” At that comment, of course, the concerned gardener’s eyebrows shot up to the very top of his constantly-receding hairline! Green zebras? Heritage?

But Grandma and grandson were in completely-correct gardening form. They had researched their topic and were ready, able and competent. In fact, they had spent many happy afternoons together, during the preceding winter as powder-dry snow swirled around the windows, poring over seed catalogues and Internet sites, in search of a half-dozen heirloom tomato varieties for their garden plot.

This year, they were going to get back to basics, focus on the tried-and-true, celebrate some heritage of days gone by. The search was difficult, though. Lack of sources, lack of variety was not the problem – there were so MANY interesting options that it was just so very difficult to choose! They wanted to order all of them!

But, choose they (finally) did and as summer approached, seeds were planted in indoor trays, then seedlings were set out into the garden when the weather was favorable. And, ever since that late-May day, Grandma and grandson had shared a special outdoor project that produced lifetime memories, in addition to glorious tomatoes, that were especially their own -- their memories of heritage!

“The Heirloom Tomato Project,” as their effort was named by the 10-year old, grew out of a visit that they had made to the local farmers’ market the previous summer. As they strolled the wide aisles, they had been captivated by one stall in particular. For, arrayed on the stall’s table, were tomatoes of every description except the usual! In fact, there were none of the usual, fire-red, uniform globes of supermarket fame.

Rather, this display of tomatoes had been slightly reminiscent of a “seconds sale” at the local pottery factory. Rather than smooth, thick skins – the kind that allows supermarket tomatoes to be picked before ripe, then travel thousands of miles from growers, and then sit patiently on the shelf for days, all the while LOOKING lovely but having never developed a full, ripe flavor – these oddball varieties had unusual shapes and fragile skins. They came in all sizes. And there were colors from pink to purple to yellow to green and gold – oh yes, and some reds as well!

The farmer at the market stall had been friendly and smiled knowingly at the grandmother and grandson. He could see the spark of interest in their eyes (those large, smiling brown eyes that so resembled each other’s) and knew that they wanted to know more. Their rapt attention, as he explained the basics of heirloom tomatoes, was very gratifying to him.

The oldest tomato variety in America has been grown consecutively for 600 years. It happens to be a small, pear-shaped tomato that is red in color. To qualify as an officially-designated “heirloom” variety, though, a tomato need be grown unchanged (maintaining the identical size, flavor, texture and color characteristics) for “only” fifty years – in many cases, by the same family. And that of course, is where the “heritage” comes in! Passed from generation to generation, the heirloom tomatoes have been kept in their original form and format -- rather than hybridized or cross-bred again and again to produce those supermarket globes.

As a result, the true flavors, which different significantly from each other, are maintained in each heirloom variety. Some are quite pungent and tart, high in acid content. Others are milder, some almost fruitlike (yes, yes, the Ingredient Sleuth is aware that all tomatoes ARE fruits, not vegetables) in their sweet flavors. Some are particularly juicy, others firm.

“Imperfections” such as splits (called “cat faces”), bruises or belly-button-like protrusions are common and often cause people to shy away from the heirlooms. Ironically, those very same shape irregularities are an indicator of a likely heirloom variety – an important piece of ingredient-sleuthing information. The farmer suggested that, when looking for a flavorful tomato experience, one think “lobes” rather than “globes.” The extra pockets and indentations in heirloom tomatoes simply mean that THESE varieties are in their original format – not in the hybridized format. (Can’t you just hear the “heirlooms”, upon observing the made-over “supermarkets” saying playfully, “Hmmm, it looks as if THEY had some work done!”).

With names like Purple Cherokee, Pink Caspian, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Mister Stripey, Pineapple, Green Zebra, Abe Lincoln, Super Sioux, Goose Creek, Persimmon – even one variety named Julia Child – heirloom tomatoes seem to have personalities of their own, even before tasted. One variety, called Northampton Italian, is elongated in shape and is often mistaken for a pepper. (To read more about varieties and sources for heirloom seeds and free seed catalogues, see You can even subscribe to “The Heirloom Gardener” magazine or to a free heirloom e-mail newsletter.)

Because of their thinner skins and resultant shorter shelf life, heirloom tomatoes are meant to be enjoyed soon after picking. And therein lies the explanation for the scarcity of them in supermarkets. Heirlooms are not happy when transported thousand of miles to a supermarket. Rather, local sourcing, close to the location of the tomatoes’ growth, is ideal and brings farmers’ markets, farm stands and backyard gardens to the forefront of the heirloom tomato scene.

So, to find good heirloom tomatoes, it seems that one has to look for them in the fresh air! Many farmers’ markets and farm stands allow free tastes, to help facilitate awareness and spread the heirloom gospel. There the little beauties will be, in all their colorful glory -- and never, never will they have been subjected to (gasp!) that flavor-killing refrigerator!

Heirloom tomato festivals are held from coast to coast in the United States – and are especially popular in areas in which truck gardening and small farms are common. California, Missouri and New Jersey are particular heirloom tomato hot spots! The Hollywood (CA) Farmers’ Market, in fact, will hold its annual “Peak of Summer Tomato Festival” this Sunday (morning), August 28th. And then, on September 11th, the annual Tomato Festival will be held in Carmel, California and will feature 300 tomato varieties for tasting. A quick Internet search for “heirloom tomatoes” and “festival” will undoubtedly produce festival opportunities in other locales.

Grandma and grandson couldn’t have been happier with their newfound knowledge or with their peak-of-season harvest. Their heirloom planting project was a success and their shared interest was a delight to both. Because heirloom seeds retain their complete character profile, the gardening duo happily harvested seeds to dry for next year’s planting -- feeling even more thrifty than usual! Of course, they already have plans to place another order for some additional varieties as well!

Whether planning your own next-year’s garden, taste sampling at an outdoor stall or just jumping in to buy a few, ripe heirloom tomatoes of your own to enjoy with dinner, maybe there is an “Heirloom Tomato Project” in your future too!


Anonymous said...

If only I had known about heirloom tomatoes before! I'm pretty sure that I saw some for sale at a farm stand along the road when we went to the Jersey shore on vacation last month. But I didn't know anything about them and I didn't ask. I'll have to try and find some around home (Maryland) before the season is over! Great info!

Doug said...

A question about collecting those seeds...wouldn't you need to take some steps against cross-pollination from different varieties to be sure that your seeds breed true? I've not investigated whether tomatoes are more likely to self-pollinate than not, but I'd presume that if you grow multiple varieties near each other, some busy bees could effect serious modifications to your purebred strains ;) Of course, those tomatoes might be more interesting still! Ooh now I'm hungry for some tomato stew!

marc&terri said...

The farmer's market at Colonial Williamsburg has heirloom tomatoes at times and we have tried several different types. We were shocked at what a true, natural flavor they have. It is hard to describe but they just taste more real!

Lori said...

Re: question about tomato seeds and pollination - tomatoes are self-pollinating. Our horticultural society gets this question all the time. Of course there is always the possibility of busy bees moving between different plant types (helping out) but even then, heirloom varieties are relatively fixed (unlike hybrids).

kristi said...

You are SO lucky to be able to get so many kinds of heirlooms! I've had green zebras (I think) and they were mild and delicious. I'll keep looking!

Anonymous said...

The story about the grandmother and grandson is a very nice way to present this information. I always enjoy taking my grandchildren out to our garden in the back yard and I think it helps them to understand where food comes from and to enjoy tasting different things.

jennifer said...

You know ..... that now, every time that I see those round & smooth tomatoes in the supermarket I will think "they look like they had some work done"!! That is so funny but really is a good way to describe the differences between heirlooms & hybrids. Another great image from the ingredient sleuth!

Anonymous said...

always wondered what "heirloom" meant ... thx

Anonymous said...

I've been happy to see the interest in different kinds of tomatoes at our garden club. This year we had a plant exchange of seeedlings and it was very popular. I got a heirloom plant of the Green Zebra tomatoe and it was very easy to grow. The tomatoes keep coming and they are delicious.l

Lois said...

This sounds like a really good way to keep kids interested in the garden, and my kids thought the picture was "ccol"!

carolyn said...

Great info. I had no idea!

Pat R said...

I'm going to send for a seed catalogue. I haven't done that in years but this just sounds too good to pass up!