Heirlooms With Taste
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
August 19, 2009; 3:30 PM ET
Categories: To Market, To Market | Tags: Jane Black, tomatoes
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