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In Search of the Perfect Tomato

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In Search of the Perfect Tomato
Text by Jeff Allen. Photo by Lauren Stonestreet
Large-scale commercial farming has bred the taste right out of our favorite summertime fruit, but here are some southern growers determined to change that.

To hear Betsey Elliot tell it, growing a few delicious vine-ripe tomatoes is child’s play. We’re talking the kind of fruit that your grandmother pampered in her backyard garden, the kind you can’t hope to find in a regular grocery store or even at one of the ubiquitous roadside stands that dot the South selling truckloads from Florida before the first flowers even set fruit farther north. Betsey grows real tomatoes. That is, when she’s not serving customers at the acclaimed Crook’s Corner Café in Chapel Hill or adorning the restaurant’s walls with collages of tomato seed packets. In between evening shifts a few days a week, she tends a small acre patch behind her nearby Chatham County home, growing everything from lettuce to cucumbers, but like many Southern gardeners, the tomatoes are always her favorite harvest. After forty years of putting in an annual crop of over a hundred plants, she should know. She often fields questions from interested diners and stresses one common refrain—that heirloom varietals are superior to commercial plants.

Blog Post August 2012
Heirloom Tomatoes. Photo by Jennifer Davick

Betsey’s not alone. Farmers markets these days abound with oddly shaped forms of the fruit in every conceivable size and color with a diversity of flavors to match. So when I began looking for tomatoes to grow on my small farm south of Charleston, South Carolina, it was to people like Betsey that I turned for advice because the complex world of tomatoes can be mindboggling.

Just down the road from my farm, Greg Johnsman grows over fifty-three varieties at his Geechie Boy Market & Mill. He’s new to the tomato game, and farming in general, but his father-in-law, Adair McKoy, has been in the commercial tomato business for over forty years. He knows all of the tricks of the trade. But Greg said that old-timers like his father-in-law can be hard to persuade. “He told me I was crazy,” Greg informed me, “especially when we started having problems with the plants.” These were problems that farmers like McKoy had spent years working to eradicate. The yields were low, the fruit hard to pick and process for sale, but the prices were three times what a “normal” tomato could bring and the flavor was incomparable. “That’s what really got him,” said Greg. “He tasted the difference in flavor and realized that what we were onto was special.”

Since 1940, the prospect for heirloom tomatoes has been mostly dim. Commercial growers won’t touch them. Like Greg Johnsman’s father-in-law, they’ve spent lifetimes developing a tomato culture that can produce large volumes of fruit impervious to disease, easy to pick, and able to survive a long journey to the supermarket shelf. Anyone who’s eaten an insipid slice placed between the buns of a fast-food sandwich can attest to less than spectacular culinary results.

No one is going to mistake a commercial tomato for one of Grandpa’s juicy orbs, nor serve this tasteless variety the way my grandmother taught me: on toasted bread slathered with a half inch of mayo and lots of salt and black pepper eaten over the kitchen sink (lest the juice running down your arms reach the floor).
Photos by Jennifer Davick
Photo by Jennifer Davick

Best points out that heirlooms come in thousands of varieties and all sorts of shapes and sizes. Each one has its own unique flavor as well. As a rule, red varieties tend towards higher acid with a sharp bite. Yellows are highest in sugar, sweet and even syrupy at times. Pink tomatoes, such as the famous Brandywine types, balance the acid of the red with the sweetness of a yellow and are among the most popular to grow. But then there are Yellow Germans (yellow with red streaks)—some stay green and slightly tart, even when ripe—and the elusive black and purple ones, many relative newcomers from the former Soviet Union only known to the United States since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

There are a thousand reasons to instead source heirloom and open-pollinated varieties and a thousand colors and shapes waiting to be your “perfect” tomato. Just remember to keep you elbows over the sink, lest the juice dribble down onto the floor.