An Ode to the Heirloom Tomato
by Diana Conovitz
Jun 01, 2010 | 2259 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Speckled Roma
Speckled Roma
Once it was the Good Humor man coming down the street in his white truck playing its distinctive tune heralding the pleasures of summer.

Now, it’s the farmers market.

Think summer and what comes to mind are the stalls bearing the fruits of nearby farmers’ labor-intensive work. Think summer and enjoy the memory of a juicy, flavorful tomato.

Heirloom tomatoes are the jewels of the farmers market, with colors and shapes as varied as any Bulgari window display. We all have our favorites. Who can resist trying a “Mortgage Lifter,” propagated by a radiator repair guy during the Depression to raise a few bucks – with its few seeds, it’s the perfect tomato sandwich tomato. How about the beautiful, blemish-free dark pink “Arkansas Traveler?” The giant, deep-red-fruited “Blaby Special?”

Or take the Wapsipinacon Peach. Very fuzzy, like a peach, slightly spicy and pale, pale yellow. For more intense color, check out the Green Zebra, an exquisite green bi-colored tomato with flesh the color of emerald and lime – great for brightening up salads.

Walk through the stalls of any farmers market this summer to find out for yourself: How purple is that Purple Smudge? How black is the Black Prince?

At my farmers market, we tomato lovers queue up early, sharing gossip and recipes, ready to pay dearly for these colorful gems we are unable to grow ourselves, in Telluride, with our high altitude and short growing season.

Most heirloom tomatoes are no beauties, however; unlike the commercial varieties grown for mass production, bred with tough skins to endure long transportation distances and withstand rough handling, the heirlooms are thin-skinned and easily bruised. But they are exotic and delicious, their beauty in the eye of the beholder, offering endless possibilities for culinary delight.

Be forewarned: Once you have eaten an heirloom tomato, there is no going back to what passes for tomatoes in the supermarket.

And then, there’s the price. Once, out of curiosity, I asked my husband how much he would pay for a tomato.

He said, “One dollar.”

I didn’t dare reveal that I willingly pay up to $6 a pound – my secret indulgence is well-worth foregoing a pedicure or two over the course of the summer. Instead, I get the bright, yellow and meaty Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, gorgeous on the dinner table with fresh green basil, a drizzle of olive oil and a quick grind of Tellicherry peppercorns, and the Big Rainbow, one of dozens of large- fruited yellow tomatoes, with red swirls and a sweet, sweet flavor that needs no accompaniment. For those inclined to more labor-intensive projects, the Brandywine works wonders in a tomato-and-goat-cheese tart.

Folklore associated with the tomato is as wild and weird and colorful as heirloom tomatoes themselves. The French name for the tomato, pomme d’amore, or apple of love, echoed the belief of native peoples in South and Central America that tomato seeds were aphrodisiacs. No wonder these fruits were frowned upon by the Puritans.

The tomato has had more ominous associations, as well. Because of its close resemblance to the deadly nightshade family of plants, it was long thought to be poisonous. Being reclassified in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, as S. Lycopersicon, meaning both poison and wolves, did not make the tomato any more palatable to the general population. Here in America, the colonists thought if you ate one its poison would turn your blood into acid. Until the end of the 18th century, doctors warned against eating tomatoes, which were thought to cause appendicitis and stomach cancer.

Truth be told, all parts of the tomato plant, with the exception of its fruit, are poisonous. More recent botanists have added esculentum, meaning edible, to its botanical name, renaming it Lycopersicon esculentum, or “edible wolf peach.” But maybe it wasn’t so much its new name, but its evolving flavor, that softened our mindset and got us to reconsider this tasty fruit.

And the tomato is a fruit – because, botanically speaking, tomatoes, the seed-bearing ripened ovaries of a flower, are fruits. And not just a fruit – but, surprisingly, berries – that are, although grown by most Americans as annuals, in their native and wild state, perennials.

It gets even more complicated: Although botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits, legally, in the United States, at least, they are classified as vegetables thanks to a Supreme Court ruling against a tomato importer suing the tax collector for the port of New York. In that ruling (Nix v. Hedden.149 U.S.304, 1893), the Court distinguished between a vegetable as a dinner item and a fruit as a dessert. Because the tomato was used in the dinner portion of the meal, it was deemed a vegetable, and therefore subject to the 1887 U.S. tariff laws imposing 10 percent duty on vegetables, but none on fruit.

Heirloom tomatoes are inexorably intertwined with human history. For within the seed of the heirloom tomato lies the story and the flavors of our past. An heirloom plant is a cultivar, grown in earlier periods in human history, long before today’s large-scale industrial agriculture. According Tomatoville, an online community of tomato growers, some heirloom tomatoes may have roots reaching back to prehistoric times.

Longtime tomato grower Bill Mattson, well-known in Telluride as the “Moab Tomato Man,” sets up shop Mondays on main street, in the pocket park at Spruce Street, between Honga’s and Telluride Music. Bill’s story is one of a hobby gone haywire, careening from 20 to 200 plants – and 400 pounds of 30 varieties – of heirloom tomatoes every week in the summer. A builder by trade, Mattson is a grower at heart, which led him to Moab, with its fabled river-bottom soil (at 4,000-feet elevation) and bountiful crops, drawn to heirloom tomatoes because, he says, they are what tomatoes used to be.

For growers, heirloom tomatoes present a challenge. Weird-looking and sensitive, they need time and loving care to grow, pick, pack and transport 2-1/2 hours away to those who wait willingly in line, alongside buyers for local restaurants, where they are the color and flavor of soups, salads and pasta dishes. Thankfully, tomatoes are an early crop that keeps on coming throughout the summer. The seeds of these summer treasures are sown in early March. Unlike hybrids, which are a cross between two or more varieties and, like mules, cannot continue to reproduce on their own (thus requiring new seeds to be bought year after year), heirlooms are open-pollinated plants grown directly from the seed of a previous fruit, true to the original parent seed, with the resulting offspring a fruit identical to the original. So consider this: You may be enjoying the same tomato that your grandmother – or even Thomas Jefferson – did.

What makes a cultivar – a plant cultivated deliverately for specific characteristics – “heirloom” is debatable. Some say the variety must be over 100 years old; others say just 50. Nonetheless, 1951 is the latest year a plant can have originated to be classified “heirloom.” Seed collectors and heirloom growers and advocates worry that despite today’s renaissance of heirloom tomatoes, their seeds remain at risk of being genetically altered to serve the needs of modern, large-scale industrial agriculture.

While there may be disagreement about just how old a plant has to be to be an “heirloom,” anyone who’s tasted an heirloom tomato has got to agree that heirloom tomatoes are a treasure, something of value to be passed on and enjoyed, from one generation to the next.

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