Garden Variety

Heirloom tomatoes have survived for generations, but their vivid colors and fanciful shapes are capturing the imagination of a new crop of chefs. Jeff Wise investigates.

Do you know what a tomato looks like? Visit Amy Goldman's garden outside Rhinebeck, New York, and you might change your mind. Amid a junglelike profusion of plants and vines hang an eye-popping variety of bizarrely shaped and colored fruits: Some are elongated and wrinkled like Shar-Peis, some soft and napped in fuzz like a peach; others are plum shaped and the color of rich chocolate, or knobbed like lumps of coral in red and orange tiger stripes. The names are equally fanciful: Aunt Ginny's Purple, Big Rainbow, Box Car Willie, Cherokee Purple, German Red Strawberry, Green Zebra, Pink Ping Pong.

Altogether, Goldman's one-acre garden has nearly 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes—plus scores of melons, squashes, gourds, and other vegetables. She may well be the world's most passionate and knowledgeable heirloom grower.

Handed down from generation to generation of farmers and gardeners, heirlooms preserve the quirks and idiosyncrasies of patient breeding and nurturing. For thousands of years, heirlooms were the only kind of vegetable that existed, but then the rise of commercial seed distributors pushed them into near oblivion. Lately, though, heirlooms—especially heirloom tomatoes—have made an astonishing comeback.

"Heirlooms were bred to taste good, as well as to be beautiful," Goldman says. "When you grow them, you're preserving the best of the past." Heading back across her 200-acre estate to the 1778 Colonial farmhouse, she passes her climate-controlled greenhouse, where this season's seedlings took root this past winter. "Last summer was so wet—it was the worst season for tomatoes in 20 years," she says apologetically. "Normally I grow 150 to 200 varieties."

The strange odyssey of the domestic tomato began thousands of years ago in the coastal highlands of South America, where a shrub grew that produced hundreds of bright dime-sized berries. These primitive wild tomatoes were eaten by the indigenous peoples of the area, but it fell to the more advanced cultures of ancient Central America to domesticate the crop and breed it for ever-bigger fruits. By the time the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs were eating fruits similar to the present-day cherry tomato.

Introduced to southern Europe, the tomato quickly caught on. "The notion that tomatoes were at first considered poisonous is bunk," says the historian Andrew F. Smith, author of The Tomato in America. "As early as 1544 we find a reference in an Italian herbal text to tomatoes sautéed with salt and pepper—a precursor to tomato sauce."

The fruit was less successful in northern Europe, however, as it fared poorly in cooler climes. But over time, varieties developed that could do well there. "Because tomatoes can self-fertilize, mutations survive, so you see a huge genetic diversity," says Smith. "One of the diversities is that some are able to handle the colder air." By the 1750s the English could take up tomato eating with gusto, and before long they brought tomatoes back across the Atlantic to North America.

At the time, all tomatoes were open pollinated. They produced seeds that would grow into plants just like their parents. Farmers could then breed the qualities they wanted by saving the seeds from the best fruits. Varieties passed from father to son, from neighbor to neighbor.

Hundreds of years of idiosyncratic selection had led to some ten thousand unique varieties. Then came modern agribusiness. In the 1940s, commercial seed companies began marketing hybrid tomato strains. Though they possessed some desirable qualities, hybrids yielded unreliable seeds, meaning that if you planted them the results might not look anything like the parent fruit. So if you wanted to repeat your crop, you had to go back to the same seed company.

Selective breeding created hybrids that lasted much longer between picking and eating and could take plenty of punishment. These became the basis of the ubiquitous supermarket tomato. Picked green, they are placed in containers and gassed with ethylene, which causes them to redden and appear ripe. That's why you can buy tomatoes in Fargo in mid-February. That's also why those tomatoes taste like cardboard.

As they took over the country's supermarkets, hybrids also took over the gardens. "Our heritage of heirloom tomatoes in this country derives mostly from European immigrants," says Carolyn J. Male, author of 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden. "As that generation died out, a lot of varieties died out, too, because the children didn't keep up the tradition of seed saving."

Not everyone forgot about heirlooms, though. In the early 1970s, Iowans Kent and Diane Whealey were given a collection of seeds that Diane's great-grandfather had brought over from Bavaria a century before. Their curiosity sparked, they set out to learn more about hand-me-down seeds. "We discovered there was a tremendous heritage of fruits and vegetables in this country," says Kent. "We started trying to find other people who had heirlooms." That part-time hobby eventually grew into the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization whose 8,000 members collect and distribute heirloom seeds.

Seed Savers doesn't preserve just flavor, shape, and color, but an irreplaceable genetic heritage too. At its headquarters in Decorah, Iowa, the group maintains a collection of 24,000 vegetable varieties, including 5,500 tomatoes. "This is all of the breeding material we'll ever have for future food crops," says Kent Whealey.

Quietly spreading the word about heirlooms, Seed Savers gained followers among savvy gardeners. "It's a thrill to get a new variety of seed and wait to see what comes up," says Male. As more people planted them, heirlooms began appearing in farmers' markets, gardening columns, and recipe books.

"When we started selling heirlooms,over fifteen years ago, not too many people knew about them," says Linda Sapp, co-owner of the Tomato Growers Supply Company. "Now they're a third of what we sell."

They're taking over restaurant menus as well. When Eberhard Müller, then chef at Lutèce, bought a farm on Long Island with his wife, Paulette Satur, in 1997, the couple thought it would be amusing to plant a few heirlooms. "We had maybe ten plants," he says. "I'd take in a box of tomatoes to the restaurant every Monday morning when I went back to the city." But each year demand doubled or quadrupled. Now he grows ten thousand plants and supplies 120 restaurants with heirlooms during a harvest season that runs from July to early October. "Chefs love to play with the different colors," says Müller, now executive chef at Bayard's, which holds an annual heirloom tomato festival. (This year's will be held on September 1.) "I skin, dice, and throw them into a soup or a salad and everything lights up. It's like sunshine coming out of your plate."

The world of heirloom tomatoes continues to spread its branches, as the never-ending search for new varieties goes on. A half mile from Amy Goldman's main garden stands a picket-fence enclosure hung with espaliered apple trees. Inside is a sprawling four-foot-high shrub, its green foliage sheltering a vivid constellation of small red fruits. Goldman found it growing wild when she was hiking in the Galápagos Islands.

"I find seeds everywhere," she says. "I'll pick them off a bush by the side of the road, or off a restaurant plate. I'll stop at nothing." Once she saw an unfamiliar kind of squash that was on display in a Paris department store and managed to trace it back to the garden of Louis XIV at Versailles, where she got a specimen for herself.

Goldman twists off a cluster of tomato berries and hands it to me. I pinch one, then gingerly bite into it. My mouth is flooded with a tart, musky flavor reminiscent of pineapple. "They're so damned good. And the beauty!" she says.

So, might the triumphant march of heirlooms carry them all the way back to their former dominance? Could the remarkable black Cherokees become as ubiquitous as round, red beefsteaks? Probably not, alas. By their nature, heirlooms don't ship or store very well, so tomato lovers will only ever be able to enjoy them during the local harvest season. Not that that's a bad thing: Being forced to wait for the heirloom crop just makes us appreciate them more intensely. For proselytizers like Goldman and Male, the delicious jolt of the unfamiliar is what the heirloom passion is all about.

"There's been a homogenization of taste in this country, and people don't even know what they are missing," says Goldman. "I want them to know. And I want them to be able to have it."


A Tomato Bestiary

Heirloom tomatoes—once an arcane preoccupation—are now a culinary movement. Among Goldman's favorites are the following varieties, which can be grown at home via mail order from Seed Savers Exchange (563-382-5990; www.seedsavers.org):

AUNT GINNY'S PURPLE Not actually purple, but deep pink, with lots of flavor. Moderate yields of one-pound fruits appear in the late midseason.

BIG RAINBOW Late-maturing one- to two-pound beefsteaks with stunning red and gold colors. Flavor varies from the bland to the fruity.

CHEROKEE PURPLE A midseason-producing oblate tomato with a pronounced black color and a smoky taste. Fruits range from six to 12 ounces.

GREEN ZEBRA Two- to three-ounce fruits with vivid striping: dark green against light green when young, green against yellow when ripe. Yield is moderate in midseason.

RADIATOR CHARLIE'S MORTGAGE LIFTER Developed by a radiator repairman (and plant breeder), the profits paid off his mortgage. A moderate to high-yielding one- to three-pound pink beefsteak, maturing late midseason with rich, sweet taste and firm flesh, the fruit keeps well both on and off the vine.


Suzanne Goin's Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta with French Feta Salsa Verde

SERVES 6 AS AN APPETIZER

BRUSCHETTA
1 loaf rustic sourdough bread
2 1/2 heirloom tomatoes (mixed colors)
1 clove peeled garlic
Oil for brushing the bread

SALSA VERDE
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram or oregano leaves
1/4 cup mint leaves
1 cup tightly packed flat-leaf parsley
1 clove peeled garlic
1 tablespoon capers
1 anchovy packed in salt (rinsed and cleaned)
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces French feta cheese
Lemon for juicing

Using a mortar and pestle, pound the herbs in batches until they are almost puréed. Work in some of the olive oil. Remove the herbs to a bowl. Pound the garlic and anchovy into a paste and add the mixture to the herb bowl. Gently pound the capers until they are crushed and add to the paste. Stir in the remaining oil and taste for balance.

Slice the bread into six 1/2-inch-thick pieces (or 12 pieces if you are using baguette or batard). Cut the tomatoes horizontally into 1/2-inch slices. Lay the tomatoes flat on a cutting board or platter and season them with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of black pepper.

Grill the bread (or toast it in the oven). Rub the bread with the garlic clove. Lay the tomatoes over each slice of bread, slightly overlapping them. Measure 5 tablespoons of salsa verde into a small bowl, crumble the feta into it, season to taste with a squeeze of lemon juice and freshly ground black pepper. Spoon the salsa verde over the bruschetta. Cut each bruschetta into 2 or 3 pieces, plate family style or with a little arugula salad. Serve immediately.

GOIN, executive chef and owner of Lucques (8474 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood; 323-655-6277), was a James Beard Best Chef nominee this year. Her style: traditional Mediterranean cookery using absolutely fresh ingredients.