Dean P. Wrzeszcz
is a freelance writer
living in New York
At the airport in Erie, I carefully placed my bag on the conveyor belt. As it went through the X-ray machine, the guards argued over the large object on their screen. One said it was a gourd. Another claimed it was a Bundt cake. The third was sure it was a small pumpkin.
When I rescued the mystery object at the other end, I showed them my four-pound, Gold Medal Yellow heirloom tomato. Traveling back to New York with me, it would finish ripening in a few days. "Where did you get that?" asked one guard. "Did you grow that here?" another inquired. "I've never seen anything like it." Five months earlier, I would have said the same thing.
In the produce aisles in my local food market, I felt a familiar frustration when I considered buying tomatoes. They look as if they'll taste good, but rarely do. Even the vine-ripened varieties lack the flavor or texture that would inspire me to eat one out of my hand, something I enjoyed as a child.
In the corner of one aisle sat an unassuming bunch of bizarre fruits with a rather assuming price tag. The "Heirloom Tomato" label seemed appropriate. They looked old, with cracks and defects, and, at $5.99 a pound, "they'd better be antiques," I thought.
Back in my Manhattan apartment, I placed my six-dollar fruit on the kitchen counter, and started preparing lunch. I opened the refrigerator and glanced over at the pleated tomato. I picked it up. Heavy. Thin skin: My fingernail easily broke the surface. Must be the kind of tomato audiences used to throw at bad performers, certain to smash on impact. Regular tomatoes in the store could crack a skull.
When I put the first slice into my mouth, I knew I had uncovered a secret. It had a familiar but long-forgotten taste. It provided something the pretty tomatoes only promised: It tasted like a tomato.
I got online to learn more. Supermarket tomatoes are commercial hybrids genetically altered and bred for shelf life and efficient shipping; taste is last on the list of priorities. Picked weeks before they are ripe, still hard and green, they develop little flavor. Days or weeks after harvest, they are "ripened" with ethylene gas, which provides them with their "healthy" color.
Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, vary in shape and size, making them difficult to pack, and they bruise and tear easily during shipping. And, like the one I purchased, they are sometimes "cat-faced" - grower's jargon for ugly stem-end cracks.
There is some controversy over what constitutes a true heirloom variety. Fifty years old seems to be the consensus. All agree they are open-pollinated tomatoes, whose seeds have been handed down from generation to generation.
I became determined to grow my own heirloom tomatoes. But how? My apartment had no terrace, and my fire escape no sun.
I called my friend Bob back in Erie. He still lives next door to my childhood home. He's been growing tomatoes for decades, but never heard of heirlooms. I asked him if he would consider growing them if I shipped the plants to him. He agreed.
I found a reputable dealer in Connecticut and ordered 10 plants from their online catalog. My choices included Red Brandywine, an Amish heirloom; another Pennsylvania Dutch variety named Riesentraube; Green Zebra; and Black Prince, from Siberia.
This was my first experience growing tomatoes, albeit long-distance. Bob e-mailed photos of each plant to me weekly. I felt some guilt as he battled their sprawling growth, staking and tying plants that reached well over six feet. In late August, I flew to Erie to enjoy the harvest. I couldn't wait to meet my heirloom tomatoes in person.
Each had its own taste, color and texture. After tasting, I chopped up red, orange, yellow, green and black tomatoes, creating a salsa, adding only garlic, salt, jalapeño and cilantro to the full-flavored gems. I cooked cheese and tomato frittatas for breakfast, turning them over so the slices of caramelized Brandywine sat on top. I cut the Riesentraube in half and baked "sun-dried" tomatoes in the oven.
Not only had I seen my own dream realized, but also I had Bob's gratitude. He vowed never again to grow the common "Big Boy" or "Early Girl" hybrids - and never again to call tomatoes vegetables.
I've sent Bob 11 varieties of heirlooms for this year's tomato garden. I've kept Green Zebra, but the rest are all new. Actually, they're very old; they're just new to me.