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Heirlooms With Taste

Kevin Mueller's "Dora" tomato is a cross of the Brandywine and the Purple Cherokee. (Keith Mueller)

My article on heirloom tomato snobbery created quite a stir. My electronic in-box was flooded by heirlooms' angry defenders. And by snail mail, I received letters with photos of their successful backyard beauties. It was even worse on Facebook, where one farm-to-school advocate commented that I'd entirely missed the point: They are "grown for flavor, not shelf-life," she said. Writing them off is "like giving up on marriage because you had one bad date."

Along with the critics, though, were many kind supporters. One e-mail, from Keith Mueller, particularly caught my attention. A plant breeder in Kansas City, Mueller has developed several heirloom crosses, including the Dora, pictured above, and one named for his grandmothers, the Gary'o Sena. His lines, I should note, allow seeds to be saved. You do not have to purchase new seeds each year.

Mueller thought his tomatoes tasted pretty good. But he wanted to get consumer feedback. In 2005, he set up shop at the Brookside Farmers Market near his home. He cut up his heirloom varietals as well as a few "turkeys," hard, half-ripe tomatoes from the local supermarket, and asked customers which they liked best. It turns out that the sign, not the flavor, made up most people's minds.

"I lied and told samplers that the bad [one] was an heirloom and the good one was store-bought. Guess which one they told me was better?" Mueller said. When "I switched again people thought the [real] heirlooms were better. People hear 'heirloom' and think it must taste better. I call it the lemming effect."

Okay, it was not a controlled psychological study. But it makes a good point: Some heirloom tomato lovers love heirlooms unconditionally. (For further proof, check out the rabid comments on this Scientific American article that dared to challenge heirlooms' superiority.)

For the record, I never suggested writing off heirlooms. I like them -- when they're good. And that's the point. Just because it's an heirloom tomato doesn't mean it will taste good. A good heirloom can be ethereal. But so can a really good hybrid. And a really good hybrid is better than a mediocre heirloom.

Is that really so controversial?

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  August 19, 2009; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  To Market, To Market  | Tags: Jane Black, tomatoes  
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Heirlooms and everything else under the category of tomato was recently celebrated.

You missed it this year, but put on your radar the 2nd Annual Killer Tomato Festival in Atlanta, GA. Pics and review here:

Posted by: daferiat1 | August 19, 2009 7:48 PM | Report abuse

Yes, but why would you want to mess up a perfectly fine Cherokee Purple by crossing it with a Brandywine? Cherokee Purple is a champ by any measure. Brandywine is okay, but not great.

It is critically important that we maintain a tradition of open-pollinated vegetables. This is why heirloom tomatoes are so important: you can save the seeds, and aren't forced to pay a fickle seed company for them.

Posted by: euclidarms | August 20, 2009 6:29 AM | Report abuse

Good point about open pollination. But there are crosses that allow it, like Mueller's. You can save the seeds from any of his "new" heirlooms.

Posted by: Jane Black | August 20, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

not to mention that there are other reasons to make crosses, so that you develop a tomato line perfectly adapted to your locality, its temperature, the length of the growing season, its soils, the amount of rain... to get more disease resistance, to increase the yield, to shorten the time to get the first fruit, for bigger fruit, for smaller fruit, for more meaty fruit, for hollow fruit, for appearance, for taste (a subjective matter) etc etc... it depends what the objective of the breeder is..

Posted by: rowandk | August 20, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

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