A quiet revolt against heirloom tomatoes
Foodies and gardeners swoon over the old-fashioned varieties, but sometimes they can be mealy and bland.
The best tomato I ate last summer was not an heirloom tomato. If those don't seem like fighting words, then clearly you do not take tomatoes seriously.Skip to next paragraph
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In the food world, and in that especially obsessive corner populated by tomato aficionados, heirlooms are the embodiment of all that is good, which is to say they are not perfectly round, perfectly red, and utterly tasteless supermarket tomatoes.
We food snobs prize heirlooms for their personalities. These old-fashioned varieties are lumpy, cracked,and creviced, with glorious names such as Casady's Folly or Mullens' Mortgage Lifter (not to be confused with Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter or Quisinberry's Mortgage Lifter).
And they come in nearly all the colors of the rainbow. They can be red, of course. But they are also yellow, streaked with tangerine like a summer sunset, pale green, bronze-and-purple, and bruised black as if they've just escaped from a backyard tomato smackdown.
I have eaten terrific heirloom varieties; indeed, I'm quite partial to the Black Prince, which hails from Siberia, a place one doesn't normally associate with tomatoes. But a week ago, I paid $4.99 a pound for a locally grown heirloom that was slightly mealy, tasted overwhelmingly bland, and paled in comparison with a perfectly round, perfectly red commercial hybrid, dubbed Early Girl, that I ate last year and am still dreaming about.
Call me persnickety, but someone needs to take a stand here: "Heirloom" is not synonymous with "good."
The key to a great tomato is how it is grown. Tomatoes, both commercial hybrids and heirlooms, like hot nights and plenty of water. The best ones are eaten still warm from the garden.
"Heirloom" has become another buzzword, like "farm to table," complains Jeremy Fox, the chef at vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu in Napa, Calif., which serves farm-to-table heirlooms as well as hybrids invented by the restaurant's full-time gardener. "It's about quality," he says. "If a tomato tastes good, it's a good tomato. Nothing else matters."
That wasn't always the case. Once, only serious backyard gardeners swooned over heirlooms. Some, undoubtedly, were concerned about flavor. But for most, growing heirlooms — which they defined as any variety that can reproduce from seed and existed before World War II — was more about preserving biodiversity.
Only within the past decade did chefs and trend-crazed food writers latch on to the term: NewsBank, a database that tracks more than 2,500 sources, found 1,097 references to heirloom tomatoes in 2008, up from 77 a decade earlier.
Over the years, writers have praised the looks of heirloom tomatoes: the psychedelic colors and shapes. They applauded their flavor: the fruity explosion of the Casady's Folly and the candy sweetness and lemon notes of that Mullens' Mortgage Lifter.
Soon, heirlooms had been transformed into a status symbol, and not just for foodies. In 2005, a New York Times style writer described a pair of $635 jeans as "the apparel form of heirloom tomatoes, good the way things used to be, but at 10 times the price."
Indeed, heirloom tomatoes rose to such prominence that sociologists began to study them as a cultural phenomenon. In a 2007 article in the journal Sociologia Ruralis, Jennifer Jordan examined the pressing question of why a growing number of consumers had acquired a taste for $7-a-pound "bug-eaten, calloused, mottled and splitting tomatoes that may or may not taste good."