A grocery store tomato is plump and full, round and smooth, its skin red and unblemished. Gorgeous. But its pale, watery flesh yields little or no real taste and it’s so hard you could bounce a quarter off it.
An heirloom tomato, with its creases and cracks, bulges and lobes, and rainbow colors is the polar opposite. Its imperfections reflect a vitality and flavor, while its softness tells you its tender and ripe. Most important, it tastes the way a tomato should taste.
Think of it as if a store-bought tomato is from the film “The Matrix” where a tomato is not a tomato at all, but an accumulation of cascading computer code, an approximation of what a computer thinks a tomato should be. On the other hand, an heirloom tomato exists in the real world, and is what a human should know a tomato to be.
Now, if you said I’m going overboard about heirloom tomatoes, I’d say it’s impossible to go overboard about heirloom tomatoes. Addiction is almost certain after your first bite. But that’s okay because it’s a legal one, and good for you, but still expensive.
Heirlooms are old varieties of tomatoes that have been rediscovered by artisan farmers today, their seeds handed down by generations of cultivators since before World War II. Heirlooms are living, edible legacies. And like other family heirlooms they are often imbued with family history and lore.
“Stump of The World”; “Cosmonaut Volkov”; “Mr. Stripey”; “Aunt Ruby’s German Green”; these are actual heirloom tomato names. The monikers share that strange syntax common to Westminster Dog Show winners, like “Champion Loteki Supernatural Being,” or “Champion K-Run’s Park Me In First” where the names are a combination of their parents’, breeders’ and kennel names.
“A lot of these names came about in the 90s when heirlooms began to get popular” says Tim Stark, who grows heirloom tomatoes and chilies on his Pennsylvania farm. “Before then, they were just, you know, somebody’s grandmother’s tomato seeds that someone had saved and passed down. But some have real stories behind them.”
“Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter” is named after the tomatoes of Mr. Marshall Cletis Byles of Logan, West Virginia. Byles’ nickname was “Radiator Charlie” as he specialized in repairing and replacing radiators at his auto body shop. Having grown up on a farm, Radiator decided he wanted to grow tomatoes, very large ones. After a few years of planting and cross-pollinating breeds, he created a large, pinkish beefsteak tomato originally called “Radiator Charlie’s Tomato”. He was so successful selling his seedlings that he paid off his mortgage and his tomato was dubbed, “Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter”.
Fifteen years ago Stark, author of “Heirloom: Tales of an Accidental Tomato Farmer” was a struggling, Princeton-educated writer and management-consultant living in Brooklyn, New York. He pored over seed catalogs for fun and started growing tomato seedlings. Once the plants took over his apartment he convinced his landlord to let him move them to the roof. When the landlord vetoed Stark’s idea for installing cold-frames to plant them on, as they could pose a danger to innocent pedestrians if the wind blew the glass and wood frames on to the sidewalk below, Stark decided to plant the tomatoes on some land near his family’s farm.
“The only labor I could afford was pro bono,” Stark remembers, “so I convinced all of my friends, who were doctors and lawyers, that it would be fun to come out to the country for a weekend and help transplant two acres of seedlings with garden trowels.” And so began a quest politely described as “obsessive,” for perfect heirloom tomatoes.
Stark now owns Eckerton Hill Farm in Hamburg, Pennsylvania and his tomatoes grace the tables of Restaurant Daniel, Union Square Café, and Mario Batali’s Babbo, among other top New York City restaurants.
“With heirlooms, the variety is passed down from seed to seed with the genetics intact. If you plant the seeds from these tomatoes you’ll get the same tomato.” Stark explains. “Hybrids are bred for things like uniformity of size, color, uniform ripening, firmness so they ship better. I’m not dissing hybrids. There are some decent hybrids out there. But they’re not heirlooms.”
Most store-bought tomatoes are picked green to protect them from bruising and spoiling, and some are then exposed to ethylene gas for ripening. Nothing sinister here; many fruits like tomatoes and bananas produce their own ethylene. There’s nothing unhealthy about exposing unripe tomatoes to ethylene, but because they’re being pushed to ripeness, taste and texture are casualties. When tomatoes ripen naturally the sugars in the fruit have the time to develop and add flavor.
Stark loves heirlooms because they have “none of that stuff that hybrid tomatoes have bred into them, like color and size. They don’t have that tough skin. They’re so rich in flavor. They’re not tampered with. They simply can’t improve the flavor of tomatoes. It doesn’t work. “
Because of their great flavor, heirlooms are best used in simple soups, salads, sauces, salsas, relishes, and side dishes like panzanella, an Italian bread salad. The basic ingredients of panzanella are old bread, sliced fresh tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, fresh basil and salt and pepper, but you can add anything you’d like including capers, anchovies, onion, celery, peppers, etc.
Of course you can just serve heirlooms with fresh mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh basil, salt and pepper, or just eat them plain with a little sea salt. They’re that good on their own.
Heirlooms come in a variety of colors, and the large cracks, spots, uneven lumps and bumps, and protruding lobes they’re covered with look, well, awful, to the uninitiated. Stark says that when he first started selling them people would cast a suspicious eye, saying in as many words, “It doesn’t look like a tomato to me.”
Times change, though, and irregular shapes rule in nature. With exposure your eyes, and taste buds, will eventually appreciate the difference.