The Sublime Flavors of Heirloom Tomatoes

By Allison Glock, "Tomatoes to Treasure," July/August 2010

Why heirloom tomatoes just taste better.

“I couldn’t have predicted my path,” says Goldman. “I grew food for my family’s enjoyment. Then in the early ’90s I realized the dangers of losing irreplaceable genetic resources. Gradually I became a food activist and card-carrying seed-saver.”

Every heirloom, like every person, has a life story. In that way, heirlooms are like linen aprons, or hand-hewn wood, or marble doorknobs worn with age. Appealing and inviting, unabashedly
old-fashioned, straightforward in their integrity, endlessly welcoming.

African Queen found its way to the Carolinas as early as the mid-18th century, likely via slaves from the Caribbean. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter was bred in West Virginia by a self-taught mechanic who sold his big, beefy tomatoes for a dollar a plant to pay off his $6,000 home mortgage, something he accomplished in six years.

“Sometimes a story alone will wow me,” Goldman says breathlessly, noting that the stories imbue the fruit with meaning not found in nameless, mass-produced varieties. (She keeps a bronze cast of a 10-pound Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter on her desk.)

Heirloom seeds are carried over centuries, handed down from family to family along with advice and memories. For Goldman and other fans, that is what makes heirlooms more than just food. Instead, they become narratives bound up in one tiny seed, time capsules containing the labor and love of the past, released by the labor and love of the present. She says, “There is a real hunger out there for heirloom varieties that taste sublime. It is a treasure hunt. It is like magic. They feed your soul!”

Besides having an abiding love for heirloom tomatoes, Allison Glock is the award-winning author of the memoir Beauty Before Comfort (Knopf, 2003). A senior writer for ESPN, she has also written for The New York Times, Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone and many other magazines.

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