Just How Many Heirloom Tomato Varieties Are There?

Author Name
Answered by: Nandi, An Expert in the Culinary Arts - General Category
My friend Andy stood over the sink and took a bite out of his tomato. As it dripped down his arm, he held it up to the sky and said, "Mom! You would have loved this tomato! This is what they tasted like when I was a kid."

I don't love tomatoes myself, but I love the idea that there are so many heirloom tomato varieties out there. Andy's Proustian specimen was possibly Black Prince or Cherokee Purple--our research was unconfirmed. But it was an intriguing brown-purple-black, with a juicy matching interior; Andy confirmed that it tasted naturally salted, a characteristic of the Cherokee Purple.

The Old Oakland Farmers' Market sold a number of heirloom tomato varieties in the late summer and early fall, standbys like Early Girl and Brandywine as well as the unidentified purple newcomer. I tended toward the juicy little pear tomatoes, but I regularly brought home bags of Green Zebra, lumpy, bumpy Brandywine, and of course, our unidentified purple champion for Andy.

My good intentions of canning homemade organic tomato sauce didn't pan out (do they ever?), but we did get several sliced tomato, basil, and mozzarella salads out of my efforts, usually drizzled with a tasty balsamic vinaigrette and sprinkled with fresh ground pepper. I was reminded of the only real garden I've had, in upstate New York in the late 80s. I had a tomato patch (eight plants for two people, one of whom was not a big tomato fan) and a row of potted herbs on the deck, and I made what my memory still tells me is the best tomato soup ever from my little garden (I also learned what broccoli is not supposed to look like, but that's a different story).

My early gardening adventure inspired me to investigate more, first "The Garden Primer" by Barbara Damrosch, with which I fell in love, and then John Jeavons's "How to Grow More Vegetables: Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine." Finally I was ready to bring it all together with William Woys Weaver's "Heirloom Vegetable Gardening," a Julia Child Award winner for Food Reference.

Mr. Weaver prepared a masterly and encyclopedic cultural history of vegetable varieties that were once taken for granted around the country, phased out with the advent of sturdy, flavorless hybrids, and returned to their glory with the advent of organic gardening and a realization that diminished biodiversity endangers the food supply. But in my case, Mr. Weaver just made me want to try to grow every one of the heirloom tomato varieties he discussed in his book.

I drew up garden diagrams that would allow for me to keep the different types separated so they wouldn't cross-breed, and fantasized about afternoon after afternoon of eating juicy, sun-warmed tomatoes over the sink, just sprinkled with salt and pepper and dripping like the one I first gave to Andy. I envisioned sitting on the front porch reading and eating my juicy cherry tomatoes by the bagful, as well as canning my own Principe Borghese tomato sauce and tomato paste. Alas, so far my dreams remain just that, but I know that when I'm ready, a world of heirloom tomato varieties awaits me.

Author Name Like My Writing? Hire Me to Write For You!

Related Questions