Good Picking in the Garden
We marvel at the more than 100 varieties of enticing heirloom tomatoes and feast our eyes and palates on nature’s delicious harvest, reveling in their names: Black Brandywine, Goliath, Sun Gold, Black Plum, Marianna’s Peace, German Giant, Banana Legs, Big Rainbow, Aunt Gertie’s Gold, Box Car Willie, Daydream, Louisiana Pink and Missouri Pink Love Apple.Such signatures tell tales of their origins and of those who delighted in growing them. Their seeds have been handed down through generations of tomato growers whose love for these varieties has been shared with their neighbors and communities.
To be certified as heirloom, a tomato must be grown from seed that has produced the same variety for at least 50 years; plus, it must be certified organic by a recognized U.S. Department of Agriculture organization. An heirloom cannot be a hybrid—a product of cross-pollination used for store-bought varieties to toughen them against susceptibility to parasites and lengthen their shelf life. Rather, they must be grown outdoors and naturally pollinated.
The popularity of old-fashioned tomatoes has blossomed in recent years, not only due to their refreshing flavors, textures and crazy colors, but also because of their organic origins. Although heirloom tomatoes may blemish and spoil more quickly than factory-produced hybrids, they are worth the effort. Every bite of the delicious fruit speaks for itself.
As a rule of thumb, the redder the tomato, the sweeter it is. Darker varieties, such as the purple and black, generally offer a nice mixture of sweet and tart; the green and white tend to be more bitter. All are prized for their plentiful disease-fighting antioxidants and vitamins. Further, they present a healthful rainbow of colors and tastes that integrate well in a wide array of dishes.
Here are some easy ways to prepare some of the most popular varieties of heirloom tomatoes:
Cherokee Purple: This sweet heirloom tomato, reportedly enjoyed by the Cherokee people, has a rich, smoky taste. For an impromptu Mexican pico de gallo party salsa, chop up a couple of Cherokee Purples with half a chopped jalapeño pepper, a couple of spoons of chopped onion, fresh coriander, a squeeze of lemon juice and a bit of natural salt.
Great White: This sweet and juicy yellow tomato exhibits low acidity levels. Slice and serve with a little ground sea salt and fresh pepper.
Green Zebra: When ripe, this green tomato has yellow stripes. It’s sweet, yet a bit tart at the same time. When preparing a pasta dish, toss together the sauce and/or vegetables directly in the pan with the cooked pasta, and then add chopped tomatoes just before serving.
Nebraska Wedding: This large, orange meaty tomato is sweet enough to be perfect on its own with fresh pepper and drizzled olive oil.
Snow White Cherry: Similar in flavor to other good cherry tomatoes, this sweet yellow cherry tomato perfectly complements a tossed salad.
A final tip: Enjoy heirloom tomatoes within a few days of purchase. They lose their flavors when stored in the refrigerator, so put them in a dry place on the counter, out of direct sunlight.
Where to Buy Seeds
Gary Ibsen’s Tomato Fest at
Golden Harvest Organics at
Heirloom Tomatoes at
Find more information in Carolyn Male’s 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden.
Chantal Clabrough is the author of A Pied Noir Cookbook: French Sephardic Cuisine from Algeria and a contributor to .
For delicious recipes: Recipes with Heirloom Tomatoes