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You Say Tomato

These heirlooms should be prized



Tomatoes come in three varieties, right? Red, yellow and green? Or fresh, sun-dried and canned? But what about those oddly shaped striped ones you had on your salad plate at an area restaurant, or the lovely garnet-bronze ones that your grandmother used to grow in her backyard garden, complete with the story of how her grandfather grew the "Black Prince" tomato in Russia?

Tomatoes such as Black Prince are the old styled, heritage tomatoes that are becoming increasingly popular all over again. Move over, Big Boy, Better Boy and Best Boy. The new terms are Great White, Arkansas Traveler and Tigerella.

The tomato, a native of South America's Andean region, didn't gain popularity in the United States until 1820. Before this time, tomatoes were thought by Europeans and European-Americans to be poisonous. A frustrated president of a New Jersey horticultural society stood in front of a skeptical crowd and ate a bushel of tomatoes, disproving that they were poisonous. However, the indigenous people of the US as well as those in Central and South America had by then been consuming and cultivating tomatoes for hundred of years. In fact, some heirloom tomato varieties date back several centuries.

Our American ancestors valued heirlooms, but these tomatoes lost much of their popularity during the last century when Americans became urbanized and relinquished the production of vegetables and fruits to the large agri-business corporations. Those mega-companies chose which tomato varieties to grow based on size, yield, shelf life and appearance. The taste of the tomato may or may not have been a factor.

Appearance is an educational issue. Some consumers have not bought into Joni Mitchell's hippie era pronouncement: "Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, please!" Heritage tomatoes may or may not be blemish free. One of the unfortunate realities of raising heritage plants is that their resistance to disease is less than those hybrid plants grown by agri-businesses. But not all heirlooms are frail. One robust variety, the Bulgarian Druzba that bears four-inch fruit, is resistant to foliage disease.

Tomato plants (not tomato hybrids) are self-pollinating, so the seeds of the plant will resemble the parent. After several generations of this self-pollination, the plant becomes homozygous (identical genes) and the seeds of this plant will always produce a genetically similar plant. This is why family farmers for generations have collected seeds in the fall so they can replant them in the spring.

Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have been grown for at least 50 years. Author Dr. Carolyn Male in her Smith & Hawken: 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden noted that she has grown over 1,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

Most heirlooms are unique in shape, color, size and taste. Some are the green (when ripe), such as Aunt Ruby's Green, a large uber-flavored tomato; some have green stripes, such as the aptly named Green Zebra. Some are red-gold bicolors, such as Regina's Yellow or the brilliant Black Forest Marizol Gold, while others are purple, such as Cherokee Purple, which is reputed to be originally cultivated by the Cherokee people and which grows extraordinarily well in the South. And still others are white, such as the mild Winter Wonder, which has one- to two-pound fruits. Cooks and chefs may choose heritage tomatoes for the shape: the pear shape of the Yellow Pear Cherry; the heart shape of the Nicky Crain or the German Red Strawberry; the bell pepper shape of the somewhat flavorless Striped Cavern, a striped red perfect for stuffing since the interior is hollow like a pepper's; the egg shape of the Thai Pink Egg; and the round shape of the very sweet Pink Ping Pong Cherry.

Other heritage varieties bear names that describe them. The Pink Accordion is scalloped edged, full flavored pink. Valencia is, not surprisingly, a bright orange round tomato. Black Krim is a Russian tomato that turns almost black with enough heat and sun.

Other heirlooms are prized for their size. The spectacular Omar's Lebanese yields three- to four-pound fruits while Goliath, circa 1880, produces solid pink one- to three-pound fruits.

Other heirlooms bear enchanting names such the high yielding Box Car Willie, a medium pink variety. The Polish tomato is thought to have arrived in the US on the back of a postage stamp at the end of the 19th century. The Mortgage Lifter heirloom showed up during the Depression. Legend has it that a car repairman grew these two-pound fruits and persuaded people to buy them for a buck apiece by claiming one tomato could feed a family of four. His plants were prolific; he was successful. Within four years, he had paid off his mortgage.

Today, tomatoes are one of the world's most popular "vegetables" (Although a fruit, the US government designated the tomato a vegetable in 1893 for trade purposes.). Heirloom tomatoes are increasingly well-liked for their juicy, mouth-watering flavor that is lacking in most of the red grocery store orbs. In the past, immigrants smuggled contraband seeds of heirloom produce into the US as a way of bringing a bit of the Old World into the New World. Today, these tomatoes are a way to nudge us back to a time when growing a good garden ensured good eating.

Heirloom tomatoes are available through the summer at area farmers' markets and in some area grocery stores.

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