Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Terrific Toms

As dynamic as the world of food is these days, there are many people who still live in the hotdish, meatloaf, burger and chops world, where lettuce means iceberg and salad dressing comes from a grocery store bottle--no shame in that, though I do think those people are missing out on some profound pleasures. For these kinds of eaters, a tomato is simply something round and red that isn't an apple. It may have a name, and if it does it's likely Beefsteak or Big Boy, but more likely it's an anonymous salad garnish purchased from a chain grocery store, and it tastes the same summer, fall, spring and winter, which is to say, it doesn't taste like much.

Then there are those of us who when we meet exchange a knowing glance, and whisper to each other, "Green Zebra, Black Cherokee, Prudens Purple, Jaune Flamme...", like members of a secret society reciting the arcane password that opens the door to the Inner Sanctum. We are the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of the Heirloom Tomato. We are smitten and obsessed, and our palates are spoiled and perfectly jaded, incapable of enjoying any tomato that doesn't come with pedigree and provenance, that doesn't still bear traces of the heat of the sun when it comes to hand and then to table.

Red Brandywine, Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Wapsipinicon Peach, Green Zebra, Matt's Wild Cherry, Big Rainbow, Japanese Trifele Black, Tigerella, Pineapple, Ethiopian Black. That's my roster of tomatoes for this year. At least I think it is. In the typical springtime planting frenzy I neglected to take good notes on what I planted where, and the Sharpie-marked plastic stakes I used to identify the plants in the garden have either been wiped clean by wind and sun, or have disappeared entirely--I wouldn't doubt that the slugs have eaten them....

Most of them I started myself from seed, the rest I picked up when the market plant vendors were trying to clear out their stock in June. With my own home starts I experimented this year, extending the lazy man's gardening approach by not bothering to put the seedlings under lights. We have a sunny south-facing room, and I figured that by late March, early April, that room would be getting plenty of good sun, and the seedlings would do just fine, and I was wrong wrong wrong about that, of course. Then a very warm April turned to a very chilly May, and the plants sat in their pots too long, and when finally I got around to planting my sadly lilliputian sproutlings, I patted the dirt around the plants thinking, "Well, as least we have good farmers markets here...".

But one of the things that keeps gardening interesting is how we never know what Great Nature has in store for us next. June turned warm again, and my seedlings took root and grew, and the summer stayed warm, grew hot, and pretty soon I was staking those plants, that I doubted would be anything more than ankle-biters. It has turned out, overall, to be a perfect summer for tomatoes--oh, except for the heavy rains that caused the fruits to crack, the humidity that encourages blossom-end rot, the too-warm nights that prevent the flowers from setting fruit, and the late blight that's now taking out one plant after another. Aside from that, pretty much flawless tomato growing conditions.

It is ever thus, that the good comes with bad and the light with shadow, and another perennial facet of the gardener's understanding is a familiarity with redemption. Of course you have to be a bit of a sinner to know how that feels; for me, nearly every year, Great Nature manages to forgive my laziness, presumptuousness, arrogance and general ignorance. She takes pity because, though I am hopelessly flawed in all these ways, I am also steadfast, and trusting. Hey, it's really all I've got going for me.

Forgive my digression. I meant to speak of the wonder of heirloom tomatoes, and the first thought that spurred me to take up the topic--well, after the sheer inspiration of a counter overflowing with those beautiful fruits--the first thought was that it has been within my gardening life that heirloom tomatoes, as well as the whole notion of heirloom or heritage crops and breeds, have become widely familiar. I grew up in that Beefsteak, Big Boy, Better Boy, Early Girl world. Who didn't? Those and other hybrid varieties were all anyone grew, because they were all anyone could get. And they were--and are--productive, disease-resistant, reliable; and let's not be snobs about it: a vine-ripe just picked Big Boy from your own garden can hold its own with just about anything.

But some of us are easily bored, require lots of stimulation. For us, it's a wonderful thing that the world of tomatoes has expanded so, not by going forward via the hybrid route, but by going back to those open-pollinated varieties so expressive of the times and places where they arose. I don't want to go all academic on you (in part because that would require way too much work on my part) but I'll just lay this little factoid on you: The Brandywine, perhaps the best known of all heirloom tomato varieties, first appeared in the Seed Savers Exchange Catalog in 1982. I was going to guess that most folks didn't know much about heirlooms before 30 years ago; I'm amazed to learn that virtually no one had even heard of a Brandywine prior to 1982.

No doubt the world is changing fast, accelerating even faster. I remember (kind of) ordering Brandywine, Double Rich and other heirloom tomato seeds from Seeds of Change back in the early '90s. I recall the delight of opening the seed catalogs each winter and seeing more and more heirloom varieties of tomatoes and other plants appearing in those enticing pages. Now, those of us who watched the emergence and boom of heirloom vegetables can only shake our heads and sigh to see the "heirloom backlash" that has sprouted up in the last couple of years, in the form of newspaper and magazine articles opining that heirloom tomatoes aren't worth eight bucks a pound, that a Mortgage Lifter can be as insipid and mealy as a winter hothouse tomato, or bemoaning that an heirloom plant isn't as productive, is more fickle about growing conditions, or more susceptible to disease.

And you know, I have to agree, no tomato, not even an organic heirloom, is worth $8 a pound. At that price, one of the Brandywines sitting on my counter right now would ring up at $12! And hell, it's mostly water! The $12 tomato is the Whole Foods price in June for import California tomatoes--the sucker's price, in other words. If you look at your produce purchases as status symbols, then you probably deserve to pay $12 per. It's more important to know where your tomatoes come from, and who grew them, than to buy by trendy names and price tags, duh.

But I digress again. In 1982, those of us cautiously poking our callow noses up into the rarified air of gourmandise were just catching wind of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, kalamata olives (forget about nicoise or picholine), and pesto. It may shock some of you to know that plain old basil is a relative newcomer to farmers market stalls around here. We were just learning that not all "parmesan" cheese came from a green can, pre-grated. I'll digress within a digression to say that upon discovering the culinary alchemy that transpires upon combining several of those products, I consumed so much basil pesto over the span of a couple of years that I wound up going completely off the stuff for more than a decade--I'm just now getting back the taste for it.

Of the heirlooms I've grown more than a couple of times, some of my top picks are Brandywine, Green Zebra, Big Rainbow, and Matt's Wild Cherry. I've also really enjoyed Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, and Jaune Flamme. The last two years I've grown--or tried to grow--the Wapsipinicon Peach, named for a river in Iowa. I'm not sure how big these might grow under ideal conditions. Mine are about golfball size, and they're covered with peachy fuzz. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I find their flavor fruity, too, tart and sweet with a savory richness behind it all. I'll keep trying to grow them, though they appear the most blight-prone of any tomato I've ever grown. I suspect it might wither under the force of a sidewise glance.

But I don't care. I might not grow those every year. I'll remember them with pleasure, regardless. There are literally hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties available now, and while I've no desire to try them all, I'm delighted by the selection, and by what it says about our sensibility regarding the food we eat. To me, the most meaningful backlash is the one that turned away from selecting tomato varieties for uniformity and "ship-ability," and back toward those old varieties, each with a taste and a story all its own.

Each year I wonder, briefly, if it's worth it to start my own seeds, and I succumb, more briefly still, to doubts about whether those heirlooms really are over-hyped, do I really like tomatoes all that much, don't we get sick of plate after plate of sliced tomatoes with basil when the glut of late summer is on? Maybe so, but I persevere (remember what I said about steadfast?), and each year when the first tomatoes come ripe in the garden, I'm given ample reward to carry through till next spring. Maybe that space could be better used growing rutabagas for the root cellar, but...wait, what the hell am I saying?

I close with one of my favorite heirloom tomato memories, inspired by a dinner at the Native Bay restaurant in Chippewa Falls, WI--our one and only dinner there, sadly, as that admirable outpost of local, seasonal eating in west central Wisconsin lasted only a couple of years, and we learned about it late. Everything about our dinner there was excellent (Mary will be happy to expound at great length upon her appetizer of soft-cooked egg with lamb gravy, just ask her...), but the best thing I took away--literally, in part--was a simple plate of perfectly ripe, perfectly chosen heirloom tomatoes from a local organic grower. There were four different varieties on the plate, which arrived with this slip of paper, what I think of as the "tomato clock":

I note with interest that I'm growing three of those four varieties in my garden this year (and the fourth, Cream Sausage, was fantastic, I need to find that one...), a sheer coincidence, but I also see it as an homage to Native Bay (its chef and owner, Nathan Berg, is still around), and to the tomatoes themselves. They're a vegetable...fruit...fruit eaten as a vegetable...that deserves the hype, if anything does.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


Susan Berkson said...

Lovely post.

Charles Leck said...

What a terrific and perfectly charming post. I read it twice and will recommend it to friends. Thanks so much. Chas

el said...

Fun post! And what a sight for sore eyes it will be when we all re-read it in February.

Seed-saving from tomatoes is terribly easy. All I grow is heirlooms mainly for that reason (their seeds come true). But yeah, they are fun.

Trout Caviar said...

Susan: Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.

Charles: Thanks to you, too.It's nice to hear from you, and I hope you and Anne are having a good summer.

El: One year I just froze whole tomatoes, which came out of the freezer like bright, very cold billiard balls, but gave the illusion of being beautiful fresh tomatoes in February--until they started to melt and shluump....

I should be better about saving seeds. One more thing to put on that endless list!

Cheers, all~ Brett

angie said...

Hi Brett,

Amen! I'll add another to your list - Illini Star, it is prolific, delicious, and all of the fruits are evenly sized (making it a great one for canning).

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Angie: Thanks for the recommendation. It helps to get those tips. I just looked at the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook catalog, which has nearly 200 PAGES of tomato listings, at least 20 to a page, 4000+ heirloom varieties!

Happy canning, happy harvest~ Brett