RECYCLED: Eat Local Heirloom Tomatoes
Editor’s Note: A while back friend of Beet, Damien Casten and others put on an event called Tomatofest. As part of Tomatofest, Alana Cuellar put together this great guide to heirloom tomatoes that you might find around Chicago markets. Tomatofest may be gone, but these tomatoes might still be around just about now–note a few things here and there, like Chef Mark Mendez being at Carnivale, are dated.
I distinctly recall the very first time I tasted an heirloom. It happened a couple summers ago at Frog Holler organic farm near Ann Arbor, Michigan. I volunteer to snip salad greens and thin carrots, sometimes earning a free meal. One warm day, lunch featured a reddish gold, pumpkin-fat behemoth, fresh from the tomato patch. The incredible shape and color took me aback. I found my first heirloom. Though I did not know the variety we ate, I remember its perfect balance of tart and sweet flavor, rich juiciness, and tender flesh. The other tomatoes I had eaten suddenly did not compare. I was hooked. What made these tomatoes so good?
The farmer explained that heirloom tomatoes are “open-pollinated”, that is, pollinated by natural means (wind, insects, etc.). Heirlooms develop without genetic engineering or controlled modifications. As a result, the daughters of an open-pollinated plant are always slightly genetically different from the parent and, naturally, promote biodiversity. Despite genetic evolution, the hefty fruit we ate that day had more in common with the tomatoes eaten a hundred years ago than the supermarket kind I had been eating all my life.
However, heirloom tomatoes do have traits that make them challenging to grow, especially for commercial farmers. For instance, heirlooms take longer to ripen, are more susceptible to blight and disease, find themselves more difficult to stake and keep organized, and, once ripe, do not last very long. Nonetheless, maintaining the correct conditions (and growing heirlooms that are suited to the local climate) makes all the difference for these sensitive fruits. Farmers preserve heirloom varieties by preventing cross-pollinating with other varieties. These are the tried and true tastiest, ones that people know and love, and continue growing year after year.
Genetically modified tomatoes, the ones found in standard produce sections across America, have been bred to avoid these undesirable traits: they are often smaller than the irregular, bulbous heirlooms, and rarely have any of the beautiful heirloom variation in color. The standard coloring and sizing make them easily recognizable for the supermarket shopper, simplifying their sale. Growers also genetically modified tomatoes for durability. The test tube created tomatoes with thick skins and harder, drier flesh for easy transportation. Who cared about when taste when you could avoid crushing or bruising. Convenient though they may be, these tomatoes are nearly unrecognizable shadows of their ancient ancestors when it comes to taste and texture.
I decided to try some of these famous varieties, and visited the Green City Market to stock up on as many as I could. Thanks to Nichols, Kinnikinnick, and Green Acres farms, I conducted a taste test, to see if the differences between heirloom varieties were noticeable to an untrained palate. The results were pretty incredible—each fruit definitely had a specific consistency and flavor.
Here they are, for your information and complete with gorgeous photographs by Julia V. Hendrickson!
This dark fatty was tender and juicy, with a subtly sweet, earthy flavor. Cherokee Purple tomatoes are one of the most susceptible to blight and disease. The name of this tomato belies its origins—it is said to have been grown and preserved by the Cherokee nation hundreds of years ago. The color is an incredible dusky purple and has that classic heirloom shape. 8-9 in. diameter.
A weirdly named variety, this bright red fruit was curiously elongated. It was not the best one eaten fresh (which was how I sampled it), but a fellow tomato enthusiast at the GCM said they are great for canning and making sauces. I could definitely see that—the consistency was a little harder than some of the other tomatoes we tried, but the flavor was bright and delicious. 5 in. in length, 3 in. wide.
True to its name, this tomato is bright green with fair yellow stripes when ripe. It is very juicy, though not as tender as the larger heirlooms we tasted. It has a bright, lemony flavor (one tester compared it to the taste of kiwi). Chef Mark Mendez uses this variety in his BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato) sandwich at Carnivale! 3 in. diameter.
This was probably the most beautiful of all the tomatoes in the taste test. It was a fair pink with green tinges on the “shoulders.” Unfortunately, this one was not quite ripe, and did not have the expected flavor. After reading up on it, I learned that the Brandywines in general are some of the most beloved heirlooms, and the pink seems to be especially popular. It has said to be one of the oldest Brandywine varieties with a complex, rich and sweet flavor. Make sure it is soft before you taste it, to be sure that it is ripe! 7-8 in. diameter.
This was another strangely dark tomato, about the same size and spherical shape of the Green Zebra, but similar in color to the Cherokee Purple. It had a similar flavor to the Purple, but a not as sweet and rich. Apparently, this variety was introduced from Russia several decades ago. There were two Nyagous varieties that we sampled here: the Russian Black and a mysterious, unnamed second one with reddish skin and green striations on the sides. They tasted identical. 3 in. diameter.
These little cherries were unbelievably delicious. They had an earthy, rich flavor that tended to be sour, rather than sweet. About the size of an average cherry tomato, they would be incredibly good in any salad. 1 in. diameter.
These were the most precious tomatoes I had ever seen. They looked like little gnomes, perfectly pear-shaped and leaning against each other for the pictures we took. They were sweet, juicy, and brightly reddish orange. 1 in. length, .5 in width.
This tomato was by far my favorite out of the bunch. It was another thick, juicy monster, with tender flesh and beautiful orange to red color. What shocked me about this tomato, grown by Green Acres farms and affectionately referred to by the sales people as “Mr. Stripey,” was its sweetness. At times, this was more like eating a ripe peach than a tomato. I ended up dismissing the salt, pepper, and olive oil with which we had been sampling the others, and eating it plain. It was delicious. 8-9 in. diameter.