The Sublime Flavors of Heirloom Tomatoes
Why heirloom tomatoes just taste better.
Amy Goldman loves heirloom tomatoes. Loves them enough that one might be tempted to dub her obsessed, consumed even-labels she embraces. After all, what else would you call a woman who over a single season grew more than 500 varieties of heirloom tomatoes on her farm in New York's Hudson Valley, tested and tasted every one-sometimes twice-and published her findings in a mouthwatering book, The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table, extolling their myriad virtues, complete with recipes, histories and envy-inducing photographs of "the world's most beautiful fruit."
"I never do anything in a small way," Goldman says, laughing. Especially when it comes to heirloom tomatoes, of which she has "two hundred favorites."
A lifelong gardener and late-blooming activist, Goldman was distressed by the commercial hybrid tomatoes that most of us were raised on: perfectly colored balls of unyielding flesh stuffed with something approximating wet sand. So Goldman sought out alternatives. Lots and lots of alternatives.
Heirloom tomatoes, says Goldman, "are almost human." Meaning they have personalities, habits and quirks, and defy, at times, classification. Some are gorgeous, resembling carved marble or undulating Eva Zeisel pottery. Others are bulbous, bottom-heavy, cartoonish, like balloons filled with water. Some varieties of currant tomatoes are as small as cranberries, while larger beefsteaks can weigh over two pounds. All, however, are unique. And delectable, their farm-fresh taste so transcendent, it requires nothing in the way of accouterments beyond a pinch of salt and a large napkin.
"If you taste an heirloom tomato you'll never go back," Goldman swoons. "For a straight-up tomato, I love African Queen." Armed with a pocket knife and a shaker of salt, she gobbles hers straight from the vine. "I feast on one pink meaty slice after another."
Then there are the heirlooms that shine only after simmering, like the Hungarian Italian tomato. This paste tomato, like many others, comes to life in the saucepot. Once cooked down, the Hungarian has the sort of peppery density of flavor that instigates eager (and repeated) spoon licking.
"Heirloom" tomatoes are generally defined as open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940 or in circulation more than 50 years, though enthusiasts continue to create new heirloom crosses. They are rigorously categorized and subdivided in ever-evolving, at times arcane, groups. There is even a so-called "mystery" category for "varieties that are a product of natural cross-pollination of other heirloom varieties."
"Many are oldies but goodies, some are of more recent vintage," says Goldman. "But all are keepers, worth preserving."
Tomatoes originated in the coastal highlands of South America, where primitive indigenous forms are still found, and were later domesticated in Mexico. After the Conquest of Mexico, tomatoes found their way to Europe: Spain, Italy and beyond. They arrived in North America before the Revolutionary War, the earliest reference from 1710, when an herbalist reported seeing them in what is now South Carolina.
For Goldman and others like her, growing and promoting heirlooms is more than a practical hobby, it is a fight against biological depletion, an invaluable resource not to be squandered. Industrial agriculture has reduced food varieties by dramatic numbers. Fewer than 10 percent of the 16,000 apple varieties once found in North America are still available. This winnowing of the food gene pool makes all crops less disease-resistant and more susceptible to pests, not to mention far less flavorful.
Industrial farmers shy away from heirlooms, preferring to invest in fruits that are bred for disease resistance, disproportionate yields and long travel. Taste and nutritional content are not top concerns.
Not only are heirloom seeds vital to biodiversity, heirloom tomatoes can be measurably healthier. Unlike commercially grown tomatoes, heirlooms are usually picked when they're ripe and have far more nutrients than ones picked green. And the bold colors of heirlooms are an additional plus for health. Yellow and orange varieties contain beta carotene, which helps keep your eyes healthy, and the black and purple colors suggest the presence of anthocyanins, which are associated with heart health and boosting brain power.
"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.