Few things concentrate the mind and the senses more than a sun-warmed ripe tomato eaten out of hand. It conforms to the palm, heavy for its size, plump with juice and smelling of sweet high summer. No wonder tomatoes were called pommes d’amour and pomodoros when they first reached the shores of southern Europe, “love apples” for the romantically inclined.
Years ago in Michigan my family had a large garden where tomatoes traced the long arc of summer from Memorial Day planting to the sudden, unimaginable bounty of August. Our tomatoes required frequent watering, staking, and constant vigilance against worms and mice for the plants to yield their bushels of smooth round fruit. A tomato eaten straight from the vine provided my first insight that luxury could be more a matter of time and place than dollars and cents. Homegrown tomatoes can teach you a lot about life, and, like most overused metaphors, our garden diminished over the years to a few tomato plants in pots on my mother’s back porch. Thank-fully, now many of us in cities who are unmoved by supermarket tomatoes find increasing access to local farmstand produce. Prowling those summer markets and talking with the hardworking farmers introduced me to a whole new world of old-fashioned tomato varieties.
In my youth we grew only three types of tomatoes: an ordinary “field” hybrid, productive and attractive; Beefsteak, a meaty, low- seed variety; and Italian Romas, good for sauce. These varieties, systematically bred to have thicker skins and longer shelf life, continue to dominate the mass market for supermarket produce. Here and there, however, small farmers have returned to wider cultivation of less common tomato varieties long known only to family gardens and rural locales. Called “heirlooms,” they originated in the age-old practice of open-pollinated hybridization: The best tomatoes are selected and propagated until they become a unique variety with special characteristics. They are termed heirlooms because the seeds were saved and passed down for generations like quilts and keepsakes. Recently, through the activities of the Web-based Seed Savers Exchange and with the active endorsement of organic gardening magazines, they have become widely available in summer markets across America.
Compared to modern industrial tomatoes, heirlooms take a lot of work to bring to market. They tend to be thin skinned and fragile, difficult to transport, and they have a short shelf life. They make up for these deficiencies with exceptional taste and great variety. The Brandywine, for example, has a distinctive pink color, rich tomato taste, dense texture, and low acid. Green Zebras, another popular heirloom, are green with yellow stripes and have an unsurpassed sweet/acid balance that makes your mouth water. Cherokee Purple is dark, almost black, with rich, red flesh and intense flavor. Unfortunately, they tend to ripen all at once in a huge climax—great to behold, but exhausting to pick and lug to market. Heirlooms have been bred for taste instead of “round and red,” and they sometimes arrive with cracked skins and discolored spots. Farmers have to hand sell them, offering tastes, describing virtues in a constant patter to reluctant consumers unused to tomato diversity. But for the initiated, they are a cause for celebration in late summer markets, spread out in bold display for throngs of happy shoppers with their children and dogs, and accompanied by the patter of sunburned, tired farmers explaining again and again, “These striped green tomatoes are ripe and ready to eat…” “Try a sample of the dark purple Cherokee—they are supposed to look that way…” “Everyone likes the sweet Brandywine…try it.”
Summer’s bounty: If there is a lesson here, it is to be mindful of what is on your plate and who put it there.