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Against Heirloom Tomatoes

PH2009081101970.jpgMy 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.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 12, 2009; 12:06 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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I shop at the Takoma Park farmer's market and the best tomatoes I've had all summer are beefsteak tomatoes that I got there. Definitely not the heirlooms.

Posted by: maralenenok | August 12, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the heirlooms in production now, that you see year round anymore, are greenhouse or hothouse tomatoes, and hence tasteless wonders, since they haven't sunk their toes into a well-fertilized loam, but are subsisting on a NPK diet that is mineral deficient.

Heirlooms are relatively low producers, but high ROI, with their outrageous prices. My garden heirlooms are definitely better than anything I have bought anywhere else.

Posted by: carolcarre | August 12, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

"someone needs to take a stand here: "Heirloom" is not synonymous with "good."

My, that's a very brave stand. Take the fight to those awful elitist heirloom tomato snobs, yeah! For pity's sake, nobody thinks heirloom tomatoes are always and everywhere good just because they're heirloom tomatoes. They're good, when they ARE good, because their shapes and colors add novelty, and because *they're usually sold ripe*, which is a benefit to any tomato over standard mass-distribution models. So, this year, between tomato blight and lousy weather, it's been a bad year for tomatoes. That happens with crops sometimes, I hear.

So of course not all heirloom tomatoes are good, and not all standard tomatoes are bad. (I loved the Early Girls my neighbor used to grow.) I can't believe this transparent effort at contrarianism is presented as insight.

(grumble... first they made us have a muslim forinner we're supposed to eat lumpy tomatoes... buncha latte sippin' commies)

Posted by: piminnowcheez | August 12, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Agreed. I haven't had a really good tomato here in DC, either heirloom or factory, in several months.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | August 12, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Some of the heirlooms don't necessarily taste better but taste different. I have consistently liked the Cherokee Purples though I am sure they are not immune to poor quality.

Posted by: michaelterra | August 12, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Cherokee purple is a great, if funky-looking tomato. But a carefully-grown Early Girl, allowed to ripen on the vine, will be better than a Cherokee purple that's been picked completely green and then trucked halfway across the continent.

Posted by: tl_houston | August 12, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

You've cracked the 'upscale consumer marketing not synonymous with good value' scandal wide open.

Posted by: jamusco | August 12, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Love you on healthcare, hon, but you're such a city boy on this 'mater thing.

Many tomatoes are not as tasty this year because of the weather. Lots of rain and cool weather tends to make for soft and not particularly flavorful 'maters (and other fruit for that matter). This weather pattern also tends to contribute to the spread of various fungal and bacterial foliage diseases, including the much-talked-of late blight, but the blights don't impact flavor of whatever fruit you manage to get off the plants before they succumb.

When it comes to 'maters and taste, there are some excellent tasty hybrids well worth growing and some nasty fussy heirlooms not worth growing. On balance, however, the characteristics primarily sought by hybridizers over recent decades had nothing to do with flavor and the eating quality of hybrids generally suffered as a result. Bottom line, if flavor is your goal, there are more heirlooms worth growing than hybrids, though it's not a purely one-or-t'other thing.

The best 'mater is a homegrown, vine-ripened 'mater, be it a hybrid Big Boy or an heirloom Aunt Ginny's Purple. Like the song says, only two things that money can't buy -- true love and home grown 'maters.

Posted by: mim1 | August 12, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

The trouble with heirlooms is that they are highly perishable. I mean HIGHLY perishable. The ones that come out of my garden are only good for a couple of days after ripening. This means that the ones you get in the store are one of two things. Either they were picked ripe and degraded during shipping, or they were picked with just a blush of color and ripened with ethylene gas just like store tomatoes. The trouble with this process is that it does drive forward the maturation process but since the tomato is no longer attached to the plant and has no nutrients to draw on, the flavor doesn't change, only the color.

As demand for heirlooms rises, both of the problems can only get worse.

By the way, vine-ripened, even in Whole Foods Land, does not mean vine-ripened. Tomatoes can be labeled that way if there was any color on them at all at the time they were picked.

Mim1 is right. Grow them yourself during the summer. Everything else pales in comparison. You can grow them in pots if you live in the city. However, tomatoes are not self pollinating. They rely on bees. But the bees don't carry the pollen. It is their wing vibrations that shake it loose. I discovered that an electric toothbrush applied to the stem makes a pretty good substitute for a bee.

Posted by: pj_camp | August 13, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

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