A quiet revolt against heirloom tomatoes
Foodies and gardeners swoon over the old-fashioned varieties, but sometimes they can be mealy and bland.
(Page 2 of 2)
Jordan concluded it was because heirloom tomatoes had evolved into a "marker of distinction." The lumpy, imperfect fruit had become a kind of mascot for the good-food movement that is against industrial agriculture's embrace of pesticides, against the development of genetically modified foods, in favor of preserving small farms and in support of local and seasonal food.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Some people sought out heirlooms for their flavor, a reaction to the pretty but insipid industrial hybrids. (Jordan reports that university labs were instructed "to imagine the tomato as a projectile" in their efforts to develop fruit that could survive long-distance shipping and extended refrigeration.) But for many, the growing or purchase of heirloom tomatoes was about making a statement.
Heirlooms' popularity took a toll on their taste, however. As farmers and supermarkets realized they could extract high prices for heirlooms, they increased production. And, in some cases, quality fell; hence the gorgeous but mealy and bland heirloom I bought last week.
A stunning but disappointing tomato: Does that remind you of anything?
This year I'm noting a quiet revolt against heirlooms, even among those who tend to blindly believe that everything handmade, organic, and artisanal is best.
Seed saving is still an important goal. But hybrids, after all, are the result of plant breeding, a technology as old as farming itself. Protecting heritage species is essential, but Maine farmer Barbara Damrosch (who writes for The Washington Post) says she sees nothing wrong with Burpee's hybrid Brandy Boys, which she says are more productive and easier to grow than their famous pink heirloom precursor, the Brandywine.
New Jersey-based writer and gardener Laura Schenone learned that the hard way. Last summer, she grew exclusively Black Princes and Brandywines. The tomatoes were small and so was her yield. "They tasted pretty good," she told me. "But the little tomato plant from some mass-produced seed company that my son brought home from school was better, with lots of bright, tangy fruit all summer."
This year, Schenone has switched mostly to the Ramapo tomato, a hybrid version of an old New Jersey tomato that has been bred in the lab to taste good, resist rot, and produce well. The Ramapos look boring, she admits. There are no pretty green stripes or sunset blushes. But they are big and round and turning red, while the few remaining heirlooms in her garden are still puny and green. "The [heirlooms] will be good, too, but not necessarily better."
You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos. Join the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions.