Heirloom tomatoes began showing up in farmers markets several years ago, and somewhat later they started making their appearance in grocery stores. Today, heirloom tomatoes are very popular. On a recent visit to a local farmers market, I explored this phenomenon with a vendor who was selling heirloom tomatoes. First I asked, “Why do people pay double the price for your heirloom tomatoes?” His answer was short and to the point: “They just taste better than modern tomatoes.” Naturally I just had to ask, “What in the world IS an heirloom tomato?” Again, his answer was short and to the point: “It’s an old-fashioned tomato.”
“Well,” I said, “why do they cost more?” The vendor responded, “They are harder to grow and are not as productive as the new hybrids.” Thinking that I had finally put all the pieces of the puzzle together, I decided that an heirloom tomato is an old-fashioned tomato that tastes better than modern tomatoes, and that costs more because it’s harder to grow. But I got that familiar feeling that I might still be missing a couple pieces of the puzzle.
Now I must admit I have often been disappointed by the lack of flavor in those bright red, uniformly-sized, vine-ripened tomatoes in the supermarket. For some reason they always look better than they taste. But why do heirlooms taste better? And what exactly is an heirloom tomato? There had to be more to it. Thus, began my journey to solve the mystery of the heirloom tomato.
Prior to World War II, tomatoes were grown both at home and by farmers who provided fresh tomatoes to the local markets. As new varieties were developed, seed companies often dropped older and less popular varieties from their catalogs. As a result, home gardeners began to save seeds of their favorite varieties to plant the following year.
After World War II, the country experienced a major expansion in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, highway and railroad systems. The ability to ship produce over greater distances increased the desire for tomatoes from warmer regions with longer growing seasons. This led to the consumer’s desire for year-round “vine-ripened” tomatoes. Unfortunately, the fragile tasty tomato of yesteryear was not a good shipper, so major hybridization programs were started to breed a tomato of uniform size and shape with a thicker skin to withstand shipping. Hybridization goals were expanded over the years to develop brighter red varieties that ripened at the same time, were robust enough to withstand mechanical harvesting, and were resistant to diseases and pests. Appearance, durability, volume and shelf life were the major attributes the plant breeders and growers were seeking — not flavor. One tomato farmer was quoted as saying, “I don’t get paid a cent for flavor.” I learned this from a fun-to-read book by Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Another reason often cited for the loss in the flavor of tomatoes is the customer demand for “fresh” tomatoes year around (Estabrook). So that’s where all the flavor went!
Trying to find a concise, agreed-upon definition of an heirloom tomato is akin to “nailing Jell-O to a tree.” In general, most would agree that an heirloom tomato is (1) “open-pollinated,” meaning if you collect the seeds and plant the seeds, the plant will be “true” to type — the offspring will be identical to the parents, and (2) at least 50 years old or developed before 1940. Here’s a definition I like, and it’s worth quoting:
First of all, heirloom tomatoes are nonhybrid, open-pollinated plants. That means seed collected from a particular fruit will produce similar tomatoes crop after crop.
Second, heirloom tomatoes are typically defined by age. Depending on whom you ask, an heirloom tomato must be at least 25 years old. Some say 50 years or more. Others define them as seeds dating from before 1945. After World War II, hybrid development became more prevalent.
I’m of the opinion that age doesn’t matter when it comes to heirloom tomatoes, as long as the variety is open pollinated.
Third, families pass heirloom varieties down through the generations just like they do antique furniture. Any vegetable can become an heirloom when families collect their seeds and pass them on. The Nebraska Wedding tomato is a prime example. Tomatoes are also called “love apples,” and seeds were given to young couples as a crop to help start their farms.
One thing that everyone seems to agree upon is the heirloom tomato’s superior flavor: sweet, tart, juicy or just that good old fashioned tomato taste. The various aesthetic values include a wide range of colors (red, black, brown, green, purple, orange, yellow and mahogany brown), unusual shapes and sizes (pear-shaped, round or lobed fruit, and a size range up to a two-pound beast). The names are unique giving one a sense of each tomato’s unique heritage. Because they are open-pollinated, they are great for saving seeds.
With the increased interest in old varieties of heirloom tomatoes, seed saving organizations with seed banks became popular and seed companies began growing “heirloom” seed for specialty catalogs. No one knows the total number of heirloom varieties available today. Amy Goldman states in her book: The Heirloom Tomato from Garden to Table that she generally has around 500 varieties under cultivation in a given growing season. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog lists 200 varieties of rare heirloom tomato seeds. There are a lot of varieties to choose from!
Of the many popular heirloom varieties, the “Mortgage Lifter” is one of the best known. A West Virginia auto mechanic –“Radiator Charlie” — grew and sold this variety for $1.00 each in the1940’s. It is rumored that he sold enough plants to pay off his house mortgage, hence the name!
Red Brandywine is a tomato that was so beautiful and tasted so wonderful that the taster was reminded of the beautiful Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania.
The “Giant Polish Beefsteak” — the seeds were rumored to have been smuggled into this country on the back of a postage stamp.
The “Cherokee Purple” tomato — said to have been discovered in the 1880s on a Cherokee Indian reservation.
I hope that you have a chance to taste a little tomato history this growing season. On your next trip to the supermarket or to your local farmer’s market, you may hesitate to buy heirloom tomatoes because of the cost. They will cost more than “regular tomatoes.” But think about the superior taste you may be missing out on as well as that bit of history that each heirloom will bring to your plate. Better yet, think about adding an heirloom tomato plant to your garden this year.
Thanks for stopping by The Garden Shed. We hope to see again you next month.
Tomatoland, “How Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit ( Estabrook, 2012)
The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit (Goldman, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008)
“Try heirloom tomatoes for a unique gardening experience,” Miss.St.Ext. http://msucares.com/news/print/sgnews/sg14/sg20140217.html (2014)
“Heirloom Tomatoes, University of California Coop.Ext, http://ucanr.edu/sites/sacmg/What_are_Heirloom_Tomatoes/
Additional information on tomatoes may be found in our May, 2015 article, Garden Shed: “Poison Apple”?