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Enjoy That Heirloom Tomato

It’s as rare today as it was when first planted.

By James McWilliams


Organic heirloom tomatoes. (Photo: mercedesfromtheeighties/Wikimedia Commons)

The season of the fresh tomato is upon us and and with it comes an impulse to praise the virtues of eating seasonally. Thanks to the scope, efficiency, and ingenious preservation techniques of our otherwise vexed industrial food system, most of what we eat is available all year. You want a banana in Boston in December? All yours. But the heirloom tomato is a more elusive specimen, one that has worked hard to escape (mostly) this endless cycle of convenience to peak during brief windows of agricultural time and, in turn, become a much-anticipated, almost ephemeral, morsel of summer pleasure.

By evoking the joys of seasonality, a real tomato also sparks nostalgia for the simpler eating habits of a simpler time. Consumers who care deeply about the palatability of their produce are likely to see the tomato as emblematic of the pre-industrial diet, an aromatic reminder of a more bucolic time when heartier stock produced what it consumed, indulging in a cornucopia of fresh whole food rather than growing dependent (and diabetic) on the processed offerings of Big Agriculture. Eating like grandma, Jeffersonian agrarianism, culinary independence, and all that.

No food is better suited for sorting out the truth than the tomato.

Appealing as this version of a pre-industrial idyll might be, there’s a lot of myth to it as well. No food is better suited for sorting out the truth than the tomato. Start with the fact that, for early Americans, fewer crops were less appealing than the tomato. It’s wasn’t so much that Europeans had only recently decided that the tomato wasn’t poisonous, but more so that tomatoes were, weirdly enough, considered by most farmers to be overly fresh. They ripened, drooped the vine, and had to be picked and eaten right away. This was not good.

An agricultural aversion to freshness might seem counterintuitive, but consider the reality on the ground for most early Americans. Land rich and labor-poor, they grew heartier crops because they had to. Corn, wheat, rye, root vegetables, herbs, and lettuces dominated because these foods could be baled up and stored away in barns and root cellars, often for months, with minimal fuss. Pre-industrial farmers grew seasonally, sure, but they did not necessarily eat seasonally. Many a home cook fetched ingredients for the evening hearth that were harvested two seasons earlier. No cookbook from the era made mention of a tomato. Damn thing perished too quickly.

By the early-19th century, tomatoes slowly began to colonize larger kitchen gardens on the East Coast, but the reason, once again, had little to do with the pleasures of seasonal consumption. Housewives (who now had regular access to vinegar and spices) pickled tomatoes, livened them with herbs, and created condimental alchemies that, in one way or another, resembled what we would now call ketchup. Actually, they too called it ketchup and, however experimentally, deployed it as a sort of ersatz fancy sauce that, while it might have made a Frenchman weep, served the less demanding American palate just fine. Others started to dry tomatoes, re-hydrating them when ready to eat, but the result was usually quite gross.

Canning, of course, changed everything. Farmers nationwide finally began to grow tomatoes on a commercial scale, sparking a mid-19th-century frenzy of production that rewarded growers who could get their stuff to market as early as possible. Cue the plant breeders, supported as they were by state agricultural societies. Motivated more by market imperatives than the imperatives of taste or nutrition (so true for the entire history of plant breeding), they worked to create a faster ripening tomato. In the course of a decade, ripening times dropped from 140 days to 95. Of course, taste-wise, a three-month tomato (say, “The Extra Early”) is no five-month tomato. But the canners were kept busy, and Italian immigrants, who added enough garlic to and oil to the skilled to mask poor quality, were happy.

It is one of the stranger marvels of the American gullet that we will eat food that, by any sensible standard, is tasteless at best. Witness the turgid, pink, Styrofoam tomato, which is exactly what most 20th-century Americans who preferred to have fresh tomatoes were forced to accept into their salad. The demand for the ever-present tomato, a demand commensurate with the overall industrialization of food production after World War II, led to the importation of these mushy abominations (largely for fast-food places) from geographies global in scope. The genetics narrowed to keep pace with the race to the bottom. Today, most tomatoes are mediocre tomatoes, if not worse.

Except for that short spate in the summer. As this history progressed — outlier gardeners, keepers of the culinary flame of flavor, selected for taste and color and richness and beauty — and they saved their seeds. These rebellious acolytes to vegetal purity passed them untainted through the generations and, even as the price tag rose higher and higher, we kept the cottage industry afloat. These botanical angels did not so much as swim against the tide of industrialization as lurk on its peripheries, taking what was needed but staying true to taste. The upshot is that eating a truly seasonal tomato is as rare today as it was 400 years ago.

Enjoy it.