To my delight and surprise the other week, I noticed some green and orange-ish tomatoes emerging on a plant that grows on the fence between my and my neighbor’s yard. To be honest, I didn’t even know there was a tomato plant there. My neighbor is a sweet lady in her 80s. She likes to yell at me when I’m mowing the yard, which makes for interesting conversation because I can’t hear her and she definitely can’t hear me. I usually pause to chat. She talks to me about her husband who passed away a couple of years ago, the yard and garden (called Sweet William’s Garden) he used to maintain, and the road trips she has taken with her friends. Oh and she drives a red Mustang. Convertible.
I gave Sweet William’s cherry tomatoes another week or so to ripen, and went out to pick a bowl-full when the vine was abundant and the tomatoes were looking handsome and red.
Peak tomato season is upon us.
Tomatoes are my most anticipated harvest of the year. This dates back to my younger years when my grandfather Pops used to maintain a healthy vegetable garden of mostly peppers and tomatoes. These tomatoes were legendary: brought to the house on each visit, peddled among the neighbors. Mostly we ate them in plain, thick, juicy slices with salt and pepper. And while most gardeners would argue that hot nights and lots of water produce your best tomatoes, Pops relied on singing to his vines and some tender care.
To my palate, there’s nothing more succulent, brightly acidic and sweet, so pleasurable to taste, than a hot summer’s still-warm-off-the vine tomato. And we wait all year for it! How sad to eat the pale, flavorless mush of a forced out-of-season tomato. But sprinkle your ripest with a touch of salt (the big flakes, like David’s Kosher Salt—available at any grocery store) and the plump, red morsel is like manna. The tomato is the hero of a bacon-lettuce sandwich on toasted bread with a spread of mayo. The tomato sings when accompanied by olive oil, salt, pepper and basil! Add fresh mozzarella and balsamic vinegar and you have created the most simple and elegant plate of food and goodness.
For my birthday my family went to 18 Seaboard for dinner. (Side note: I got the marinated Flat Iron steak with the Worcestershire sauce, sweet corn mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and sautéed spinach. It was a fantastic conclusion to my brief dive into veganism.) I was enjoying my meal too much to pause for photographs, though I did manage to snap a picture of the heirloom tomato sampler…halfway through devouring it.
I wish I could remember all of the clever names of the heirlooms—things like Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine and Banana Legs. They came in all colors and patterns —purple and green marble, red-orange and yellow—and sizes and shapes—bite sized and round, pear-shaped, and giant, bumpy, amorphous shapes. The plate was topped with basil chiffonade, olive oil, a very sweet balsamic vinegar and goat cheese.
That brings me to great heirloom debate. Something so lovely couldn’t possibly skirt by without controversy. First, a few traits of heirloom variety tomatoes:
• seeds are passed down for generations, ergo “heirloom”
• smaller scale production
• open-pollinated (meaning non-hybrids, and pollination takes place as a natural mechanism by bird, insect or wind)
• genetically diverse for desirable qualities; preserves biodiversity
• most varieties have histories preceding industrialized farming (much of which now concentrates on the sturdiness of the tomato for shipping, and a higher yield for mass production)
Heirloom tomatoes have become a touch trendy in the food world, a kind of commodity de cuisine. And with that high demand, prices have gone up, and in some cases quality has gone down while production was amped up. Jane Black of the Washington Post wrote in her article Snob Appeal: Won’t Someone Knock Heirloom Tomatoes Off Their Pedestal, “The best tomato I ate last summer was not an heirloom tomato. If those don’t seem like fighting words, then clearly you do not take tomatoes seriously.” And furthermore she said, “‘Heirloom’ is not synonymous with ‘good.'”
I will agree with Black, mostly because a tomato—heirloom or commercial hybrid—can be judged on a bite-by-bite basis. Many commercial hybrid tomatoes, if thrown at a stage of horrible comedians, wouldn’t even burst. They’ve been genetically engineered indestructible so that during shipments, crates of product aren’t worthless upon arrival at their destination. That can’t be tastey. But some engineering in hybrid creation has proved beneficial, creating great taste, a resistance to rot and high-yield vines of great taste.
But since we’re in tomato season, I say eat the tomato as straight-off-the-vine as possible. Either from your own backyard or a farmer’s market. Enjoy the season and take advantage of what’s fresh. Heirloom or not, just do what tastes right.