By Bill Best (contact the author)
(reprinted with permission)
Around the middle of September this year, I went to North Carolina to visit with a first cousin I hadn't seen in forty-four years who was coming in from Idaho where he has lived since his retirement from the Air Force. We met at a convenient place for both of us--the farmers' market in Asheville.
Despite our long time apart, we instantly recognized each other and set about reliving times past on the Liner Creek part of the UpperCrabtree community in Haywood County, North Carolina, in the forties and fifties.
First we discussed our Grandmother Sanford, who, we agreed, was a cook and gardener beyond compare. She was also an early riser, getting up early to go out to awaken the roosters so that they might crow to awaken everyone else.
Standing amidst the colorful and aromatic displays of fruits, vegetables, and canned and dried foods, we then talked about the gardening we had grown up with and how it had influenced our eating and work habits. Then, when it came time for him and his wife to leave to go visit other relatives, he informed me that they were moving back to North Carolina from Idaho and that his goal, at age seventy-one, was to become a vendor at the farmers' market to continue his life-long love of working with vegetables.
Our talk brought back to me the dependence we had on one another growing up and the necessity of having good gardens to put food on the table. For us, as families whose only livelihood was subsistence farming supplemented by a little hunting, trapping, and ginseng digging, gardening was not merely a hobby. Good gardens ensured eating well until the next ones started yielding the following year. Our conversation also brought back to me some of my personal experiences as a child and the role vegetables played for me. Mother always took me, as the oldest child, with her to work the gardens and to pick wild nuts and berries which we also depended on. I became expert at picking cherries and climbed with her all over the mountains to pick the finest wild blackberries. However, my personal favorite work with fruits and vegetables was with tomatoes. I took special care with them.
In addition to having tomatoes at least two meals daily during the summer, when school started in the fall, I took tomato sandwiches to school until those I had stored away finally gave out and I then started eating the lunches prepared by the cooks at school. But I was so fond of tomato sandwiches (with mayonnaise) that I took them for my lunch even if no light bread was available and I had to take them on biscuits instead. In fact, after the last tomatoes were gone, for about two weeks I took mayonnaise sandwiches instead and imagined myself eating tomato sandwiches. My most memorable year as a child was when we didn't have a killing frost until after Thanksgiving and I dug ripe tomatoes from a freshly fallen snow for Thanksgiving dinner. Such was, and continues to be, my love of tomatoes.
I have gardened almost all of my life since Grandpa Best began teaching me the differences between young sweet potato and cocklebur plants when I was two years old. Beans and tomatoes have always been my favorite vegetables, but having paid tribute to beans in this magazine (Winter 1998) I turn now to tomatoes.
From my earliest memory we grew both heirloom and commercial (seed catalogue) tomatoes. Of course, we didn't call them heirlooms.
They were just tomatoes of different colors and stripes and I never gave the varieties a second thought. I liked all of them and thought I was eating the best food available. (Science may prove me right, since tomatoes have been shown not to have many negatives and to have many positives with respect to health.)
When I started my own serious gardens in the early sixties, I simply went with the seeds and plants available for purchase at the local farm stores. It didn't occur to me that they might be considerably different from most of what I had grown up with and genetically altered for purposes other than making them more nutritious and tastier.
My first discovery was that tomatoes were getting tougher and tougher and had a lot less taste than those of my youth. I thought that I wasn't so old that my taste buds were already giving out on me and discovered that other acquaintances were also having trouble with modern tomatoes. They, too, thought that something had happened to tomatoes that rendered them less tasty.
Then I had an experience that began to alleviate my naivete'. I had a surplus one summer in the early sixties, owing to my habit of always planting about ten times what my family needed, and contacted a grocery company about selling my own supply. I took a sample to the company representative in Lexington, Kentucky, and he was quite pleased. He said I had a very good looking tomato and one he would like to sell.
So my young children, wife, and I picked the first ripe clusters of tomatoes, took photos of them because they looked so good, and then hauled them to Lexington to the company shipping warehouse. Once there, I began to lose the previously mentioned naivete'. The company representative rejected them angrily. He said they were ripe and he didn't want ripe tomatoes. He then went on to say that he wanted them green and that he would "gas" them to ripen them whenever he needed them. He seemed to think I was stupid because I wasn't aware that this was the standard way of marketing tomatoes in grocery stores. But this was an astounding revelation to me and put many missing pieces into the puzzle about why tomatoes were so tough and had lost their taste.
When our children were a little older, we started growing tomatoes for Cumberland Farm Products, a cooperative in Monticello, Kentucky, operated by Larry Snell, a Berea graduate who had been a monitor for my wife, the dormitory director of Blue Ridge Hall, while a student. For him we grew the Campbell 1327 tomato, which had been bred by the Campbell Soup Company for processing. It had a wonderful acid taste and was very popular with consumers. We sold them at the "breaker" stage, which is when the star first appears on the blossom end of the tomato. A tomato at this breaker stage is already ripe on the inside and needs only a few days to ripen completely and is promoted commercially as "vine" ripe.
Gradually, however, the Campbell 1327, because of the characteristics which made it very tasty, became less acceptable to produce managers and the co-op started going to harder and harder tomatoes, which had the magic ingredient for marketing to the major chains--"shelf life".
But before I stopped growing the 1327 variety, I had a considerable surplus of ripe tomatoes and decided to take them to Austin, Indiana, to a canning factory. I called ahead and was told they would pay me $57.00 per ton for my tomatoes, and since I would have several tons, I decided it would be worth the experience. So I hired a large truck and driver and several individuals to help pick the load.
After we had completed picking, we arrived several hours later at the plant and were again graded for quality. To my surprise, since these were the poorest quality tomatoes I had had all summer, I received a very high quality grade and was told that my grade was the highest ever given at that particular plant or by that grader. When I observed the other tomatoes being brought in I understood why my grade had been so high. Most had large rotten spots in them which were washed out by a high pressure hose while the tomatoes went down the assembly line and were literally beaten into a pulp by the high pressure water stream. The experience changed my attitude forever about canned tomatoes and ketchup and made me appreciate all the more what I was doing.
I was not very happy about growing the harder tomatoes, but something else happened that moved us out of growing tomatoes for the co-op at all. On July 4, 1984, we had a devastating hailstorm and flood that made our crop unmarketable commercially through USDA channels. I then had to more aggressively market the tomatoes at the Berea and Lexington farmers' markets and discovered that tomatoes that were totally unacceptable to a USDA grader were in high demand by the public.
We were charter members of both the Lexington farmers' market (1972) and the Berea market (1973), and focused primarily on selling heirloom tomatoes at both places since most customers at both places had had enough of hard tomatoes. In fact, many people refused to buy a round tomato because they thought it would be of inferior quality like those in the grocery stores and they had come to associate roundness with bad tastes and textures.
Over the years shoppers who were buying our tomatoes at the Lexington market started suggesting to chefs at restaurants they patronized that they should check into our types of tomatoes.
Gradually they did so which then led us more completely back to the tomatoes I had grown up with. When chefs began to experiment with our tomatoes in their dishes, their customers started demanding the tomatoes we were growing and chefs started getting to the markets early to get their pick of our offerings. To make a long story short and to attest to the growing popularity of heirloom tomatoes, we currently sell to at least thirty restaurants, seventeen in Cincinnati and over a dozen in Lexington and Berea. The tomatoes going to Cincinnati are marketed through a broker who comes to the Lexington market to pick them up for the chefs in his area. He also shows up early to get the pick of the crop and has even come to our fields to pick them himself if we are unable to meet him in Lexington.
Thus with tomatoes I underwent a transformation similar to what I underwent with beans but did not go wholly back to growing heirlooms. Among the 168 varieties I grew this summer, I still produced some commercial tomatoes but am careful about those I choose to grow and will discontinue growing those which do not have good flavor and texture. Not to my surprise, at least not anymore, I have noticed that those which win the national prizes as "All American" tomatoes are not necessarily the best or even good at all. What wins prizes is having the right political connections, with tomatoes just as much as in political races.
Types and Varieties:
Without going into a long detailed discussion about the technical aspects of tomato types, I will detail some of the major differences among various types and varieties of tomatoes.
Most people think that there are only two types of tomatoes, red and yellow. In fact, a large proportion of people in the United States have only had experiences with red tomatoes and never saw a yellow tomato until they started going to farmers' markets, either in Berea or in Lexington or elsewhere. However, there are a multitude of colors of tomatoes and a vast array of flavors.
It is my understanding that scientists have identified at least thirty flavor components present in tomatoes to a greater or lesser degree. Commercial tomatoes, usually picked green and ripened with ethylene gas days or weeks later, have very little flavor at all and have come to be used in dishes only to add color. Most people know they have no taste and expect none. However, vine-ripened tomatoes have a multitude of flavors, ranging from very acid to very sweet with many degrees in between.
All tomatoes have acid flavorings but some have a higher level of sugars than do others. As a rule, red tomatoes are more acid than others, while yellow tomatoes have the highest proportions of sugars. Pink, purple, black, white, brown, orange, and green (when ripe) have varying acid to sugar balances, with the yellow German varieties (yellow with red stripes) being the sweetest of all and in high demand among those who have experienced eating them. We have noticed that an increasingly larger percentage of farmers' market customers are purchasing the blacks, browns, purples, whites, striped, green (when ripe), oranges, and yellows. These tomatoes have a wide range of flavors and textures.
Sizes: Tomatoes vary in size from the tiny South American currant (both red and yellow) tomatoes where several will fit into a teaspoon to the Delicious variety, which holds many state records for size and the world record as well. It commonly weighs over three pounds and has come close to eight pounds which is the world record. Without any effort out of the ordinary, I have personally grown many over four pounds and one five-pounder.
Colors: As mentioned earlier, many people who have had limited experience with tomatoes think that tomatoes only come in one color-red. Others will allow that there are two colors-red and yellow. To the surprise of many, if not most people, tomatoes come in a multitude of colors with red being the most common in this country. Other colors are pink, brown, black, orange, purple, white, green (even when ripe), and various striped varieties with the red-striped Yellow German variety being the most common striped tomato. And all of the above colors come in varying hues.
Shapes: Most people think that tomatoes arrived on the earth in the familiar round shape. They are then surprised to discover that they are oblong, flat with ribs, heart shaped (the oxheart types from many countries), ruffled, pepper like (and hollow just like peppers), and many combinations of shapes. While most plant breeders have tried to make them rounder and rounder and more uniform in shape, other breeders have tried to make them square so that they will fit into boxes more easily. Suffice to say, most large heirloom varieties do not come in uniform shapes and sizes, which is one of the reasons they do not ship well.
Textures: As tomatoes sold commercially have had to travel greater and greater distances, and with most now being grown in Mexico, California, and Florida, plant breeders have bred them to be harder and harder. Commercial varieties, most of which are picked green, then transported, then left in storage for days or weeks, and finally gassed to color them, are the hardest of all. On the other hand, the green (when ripe), black, brown, purple, and white varieties are the softest of all and will not tolerate being shipped when ripe. With them it is best to leave them on a flat surface stacked only one level high and then eat them within three days of picking. People who care the most about tomato flavor tend to like the softer varieties and know just when to serve them, based more on how they feel to the touch rather than how they look to the eye.
Flavors: A lot of customers want a tomato that "bites them back when they bite it"-or, in other words, a very acid tomato. Most are disappointed with commercial varieties because their flavor is so bland, but that is the characteristic of any tomato picked green and then later gassed for ripening. Their flavors never develop.
All tomatoes ripened on the vine have a substantial amount of acid, but they vary greatly in the proportion of sugars. As a general rule, red tomatoes are the most acid of the various colors while yellows are the most sweet. The pinks, blacks, browns, purples, greens, whites and striped all have varying acid/ sugar combinations with the Yellow German tomatoes (yellow with red stripes) being the most sweet of all I know about. Flavor scientists have isolated over thirty flavor components of tomatoes and there are probably many more.
Also it is not safe to say that one variety is necessarily more acid than another variety. The flavors change as the season progresses from early summer to fall with most varieties becoming more acid as the season progresses. I am not sure of all the reasons this is so, but it is probably a combination of shorter days, cooler nights, and the general loss of foliage to disease and weathering as the season progresses. A diminished amount of total leaf surface means less space for the production of sugars. At any rate, those who wish to can tomatoes and have a high acid content in the finished product would be wise to can from about the middle of August onward.
Diseases and Environmental Disorders:
Tomatoes are subject to a host of diseases, including fungal blights, wilts, and bacterial infections, especially during cool rainy weather. Additionally, they are subject to disorders such as blossom end rot caused by too much rain or too little rain, both of which interfere with proper calcium metabolism and produce a leathery black scar on the blossom end of the tomato. Another metabolic disorder is gray wall, caused by too much water at certain times during fruit development and causes the cells in the walls of the tomato to break down. This darkens the walls of the fruit and rot soon sets in.
The worst of all diseases is late blight, which is caused by the same organism that caused the potato famines in Ireland, which killed millions and sent millions more to other countries. It can devastate plants within two or three days to a week; control measures need to be applied immediately when the disease is first noticed. A better way to approach late blight is to have a good prevention program going at all times, and there are several safe sprays which can control it along with early blight as well. I have had late blight only once and do not wish ever to have it again.
While the seed companies claim to have included disease resistance in their breeding programs and we are all familiar with the letters after the names of varieties in their advertisements indicating resistance to various diseases, I have found the heirlooms, as a rule, to be more resistant to diseases than the hybrids. This is probably why they have lasted long enough to become heirlooms. People tend not to hold on to varieties that are plagued by disease while, at the same time, saving their seeds from healthy plants.
Dealing with these diseases and disorders is a long article in itself, but I will say that some excellent publications offer suggestions about disease control and the prevention of blossom end rot and gray wall. Extension agents in most counties will have them on hand, usually for free.
Varieties: I have personally grown over three hundred varieties over the past thirty-five years and usually grow over 150 per year now. I can do this easily enough because I grow almost all of my own transplants from seed. (I usually order a few hundred from commercial growers in case I lose my first setting to a late frost.) Rather than list all of the tomatoes I have grown in their respective categories, I will offer some commentary about groups of varieties and single out special varieties and types that have unique characteristics:
For eating, my personal favorites are the pink varieties, which tend to have a good balance of acids and sugars and pleasant textures. Of the pinks, I then tend to prefer the oxheart types which are oblong and heart shaped. Of the oxhearts, my favorite is the Anna Russian which is said to have come from Russia to a lady in Oregon and then spread to other states from there. I do know that the Russian immigrants now living in Lexington recognize them readily and buy them whenever I have them.
As indicated earlier, the Yellow German varieties, variously known as Yellow German, Pineapple, Big Rainbow, Georgia Streak, Hillbilly, Kentucky Beefsteak, and others are the sweetest of the large varieties and are becoming increasingly popular. These are the large yellow tomatoes with the red stripes which become more pronounced at the tomato ripens. We tend to double our production each year and are nowhere near to being able to supply demand as it seems to increase faster than we are able to increase our supply The Yellow German is supposed to be a Mennonite and Amish heirloom, and I suspect that the other names by which it is known are simply local variations and, in some cases, marketing strategies by the various companies that now supply heirlooms to an increasingly larger number of customers. Of these strains of the Yellow German variety, I prefer one I got from Rockcastle County, Kentucky, which is locally known as the Willard Wynn variety, after the man who perfected the strain. This particular strain is never completely round and comes in a pleasing variety of shapes and rarely has cat faces.
The red varieties are best known to people in the United States and are the varieties most worked with by plant breeders. (Other than Lemon Boy and Golden Boy, there are no large yellow tomato hybrids that I know about.) Red tomatoes range in size from tiny red currants where it takes many to make an ounce, to the Delicious mentioned earlier, which can weigh many pounds.
In addition to all of the heirloom red varieties, we also grow some of the hybrids first to be developed such as Big Boy and Better Boy and more recently developed large hybrids such as Goliath and Park's Whopper. Most of the red hybrids bred for gardeners are quite tasty with good texture; the most recent ones such as Whopper and Goliath are particularly appealing. The Harris Seed Company's Ramapo is also an outstanding tomato requested by many farmers' market customers, but it has been phased out by the company, because of low overall demand. When I heard it was to be no more, I called the company and begged for their remaining packets and was sent several with thirty seeds each, which will last me for a few more years. Update: As of January, 2008, Rutgers University has brought the Ramapo Tomato back. Seeds can be ordered through the following web address:
Some mention also needs to be made of the varieties constantly being developed by the major seed companies. The primary considerations for most new varieties are USDA grade percentage and shelf life. There are so many new ones that most do not yet have a name and exist only by numbers. Few will make the grade commercially and will disappear. Most are determinate varieties to be picked green and later gassed for coloration and have little or no flavor.
However, there is at least one notable exception to an otherwise dismal rule. The tomatoes developed by Dr. Randy Gardner at the Fletcher Experiment Station in Fletcher, North Carolina, are held in high regard both by commercial growers and by gardeners. They are called by the "Mountain Series" and have names like Mountain Pride, Mountain Gold, Mountain Delight, Mountain Fresh, Mountain Spring, Mountain Supreme, and Mountain Belie. Mountain Pride and Mountain Fresh, in particular, are beautiful tomatoes which also have an excellent flavor. However, despite the popularity of his tomatoes, Dr. Gardner's varieties have failed to win the national awards. I believe this is primarily because he is a modest man working in a mountain county in a Southern state. Yet his seeds are sold by virtually all of the major seed companies.
An Heirloom Paradox
For many years I have been growing some outstanding heirloom tomatoes credited to the Amish and Mennonites. They include what we call the German yellows and pinks and several oxheart and orange types. Since many communities of both groups have moved to Kentucky during the past twenty years or so, I have also started buying many of my supplies from Mennonite merchants in Casey County who supply almost anything needed to grow tomatoes and other vegetable crops. They have also been responsible for the development of an outstanding plant setter, which I also bought from them.
Just at the time when I am having the most success in growing and marketing the Amish and Mennonite heirlooms, I have discovered that both groups are giving up on their own heirlooms and have started growing the most modern hard and tasteless types of tomatoes. Ironically enough, because they are forbidden by their religions to utilize certain forms of modern transportation and farm machinery, they can't grow their own tomatoes for shipping and must grow commercial tomatoes in order to have markets and be able to sustain an otherwise simple way of life.
Having noted this paradox for a number of years, I recently asked the wife of a Mennonite businessman how they dealt with what I thought might be a theological sticking point. She then made this statement: "Our theology is what our leaders say it is on a given day." with a slight shrug, she indicated that she understood what I meant but also indicated that they know they must make an accommodation to marketing reality. Because of their dispersal into rural states such as Kentucky, they no longer live close to their markets and must ship their produce by independent truckers long distances to find markets.
I am more than happy to help sustain their heirlooms until the day comes when they will again be able to grow on their own terms.
The Future of Heirlooms
For many of the reasons delineated in this essay and others too numerous to discuss, I believe heirloom tomatoes and other heirloom vegetables and fruits will have an increasingly bright future. Many people are becoming tired of the same old dreary vegetables and fruits with the shiny uniform look and the cardboard taste and are looking for flavor and quality. Agriculture schools are already showing some signs of paying attention to the needs and desires of consumers, and consumer demand, once it becomes organized, can change the way America grows and eats. Also, plant scientists and geneticists are quite concerned about the decline of plant species and varieties and are giving all the encouragement they can muster to those of us who are willing to assist in maintaining the diversity of varieties and species.