Story by Banta Whitner | Illustrations by Linda Santell and photo by Sarah Jones
You plant the seedlings and hover over them like a worried parent. You fret during the rainy stretches and pray it doesn’t hail. You pick off the hornworms and douse the leaves with compost tea. Miraculously, you dodge the blight.
Finally, with a deft twist of your wrist, the first lumpy Cherokee Purple tomato of the season drops into your waiting hand. Sun-warmed and luscious, it’s love at first bite. But why do these homely heirlooms enchant us?
“People want to eat food that reminds them of when they were young,” says Amy Hamilton, owner of Appalachian Seeds Farm and Nursery. “They love to hear the stories about the heirloom varieties, and they love to tell their own stories as a way of remembering.”
Tina Masciarelli of Waynesville is a writer and biointensive gardener. “I first started growing heirloom tomatoes as an homage to my grandmother,” she recalls. “Running barefoot to pick a perfectly ripe tomato to slice and enjoy on a freshly baked biscuit was a breakfast staple for us growing up.”
Heirloom tomatoes have history. Their lore and heritage go back at least 50 years, and many varieties are centuries old, their seeds handed down over many generations. The Cherokee Purple likely comes from the Cherokee Indians of Tennessee, who shared seed with their white neighbors. The 1930s-era “Mortgage Lifter” was developed by West Virginian M.C. Byles (Radiator Charlie), whose farmstand sales paid off his mortgage.
“People want to eat food that reminds them of when they were young…They love to hear the stories about the heirloom varieties, and they love to tell their own stories as a way of remembering.”
Nostalgia is a powerful draw. So are the complex tastes of heirlooms, from sweet to citrusy, tangy and surprising.
“I grow heirloom tomatoes because I have yet to find a hybrid that rivals their flavor,” says Melissa Rebholz, owner of River House Farm in Greeneville, TN. “My dad picked one and bit into it, then ate it like an apple,” Rebholz adds. “When a meat-and-potatoes guy is eating raw tomatoes in the field, you know they’re good!”
When farmers in the 1700s began growing tomatoes as a cash crop, consumers hung back at first, believing the fruit known as “love apples” to be a poisonous member of the nightshade family. Legend has it that a soldier in George Washington’s army committed suicide after he realized that he’d unwittingly served tomatoes to the general.
For the next 200 years we embraced countless varieties of tomatoes for their extravagant diversity of color, size, shape, texture and flavor. Then, after WWII, commercial agriculture introduced hybrid tomatoes, bred for increased yield, disease resistance, ease of shipping and consistency in size and color.
But these conveniences came at a cost. Writer and gardener Paul Theroux once famously described the industrial hybrid tomato as a “bright, gassed, ripened-in-the-truck ball of tasteless pith.”
The recent rekindling of our passion for heirlooms parallels burgeoning trends toward organic farming and gardening, and support of the local economy. Carol Koury, founder of Asheville-based Sow True Seed, says, “Old-fashioned tomatoes just taste better than those commercial hybrids, and more and more people care about the quality of our food, where it comes from and
how it is grown.”
Becki Janes, owner of Becki’s Bounty in Black Mountain, agrees. “I grow heirloom tomatoes for four basic reasons: taste, tradition, economy and challenge.” The seeds are open-pollinated and true to type, easy to save and share and replant the next year.
“The challenges to growing heirlooms are their susceptibility to blight, their tendency toward low yield, and their poor shelf life,” says Steve King of King Harvest Farm in Canton, NC. “They are always best when picked ripe and eaten fresh.”
While more vulnerable to disease than hybrid varieties, heirlooms are well worth the extra care, home and market growers insist. “Growing heirlooms is like gambling,” says Rebholz. “You don’t always know what’s going to happen, but when you win big, it’s amazing.”
Banta Whitner is a founding member of the Plough to Pantry editorial council.