Against Heirloom Tomatoes
My colleague Jane Black delivers a righteous rant against the food world's adoration of heirloom tomatoes.
In the food world, and in that especially obsessive corner populated by tomato aficionados, heirlooms are the embodiment of all that is good, which is to say they are not perfectly round, perfectly red and utterly tasteless supermarket tomatoes. We food snobs prize heirlooms for their personalities. These old-fashioned varieties are lumpy, cracked and creviced, with glorious names such as Casady's Folly or Mullens' Mortgage Lifter (which is not to be confused with Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter or Quisinberry's Mortgage Lifter). And they come in nearly all the colors of the rainbow. They can be red, of course. But they are also yellow, streaked with tangerine like a summer sunset, pale green, bronze-and-purple and bruised black as if they've just escaped from a backyard tomato smackdown.
I have eaten terrific heirloom varieties; indeed, I'm quite partial to the Black Prince, which hails from Siberia, a place one doesn't normally associate with tomatoes. But a week ago, I paid $4.99 a pound for a locally grown heirloom that was slightly mealy, tasted overwhelmingly bland and paled in comparison with a perfectly round, perfectly red commercial hybrid, dubbed Early Girl, that I ate last year and am still dreaming about at the height of this year's tomato season.
Call me persnickety, but someone needs to take a stand here: "Heirloom" is not synonymous with "good."
Her whole piece -- which dips into the process of hybridization and the sociology of farmer's markets -- is well worth a read. But I'm more interested in her recent tomato experience. Like Jane, I've found this year's heirloom tomatoes strangely mealy and bland, not to mention pricey. That could be a result of tomato blight wiping out some of the best crop, overproduction killing some inefficiencies that made for tastier fruit, or simply poor luck on my part. But though I don't think it possible to purchase an inexpensive heirloom tomato in Washington, I'm increasingly sure you can buy a bad one.
Photo credit: Julia Ewan/The Washington Post.
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