One day back in late March, I came into the house after shoveling a path through the snow that had fallen that morning, kicked off my winter boots, and checked my email. Waiting for me was a message from my friend Nichol Nelson, a native Minnesotan and former Gourmet editor, who’d moved to Los Angeles, telling me about the tomato seedlings she’d just put into the backyard plot that she’d dug by hand—tomatoes with names like Black Krim, Cherokee Chocolate, and Mortgage Lifter. “Every time I glance at them out in the garden,” she said, “I think it’s June.” Which made me wonder why all gardeners don’t move to California, which also happens to be the birthplace of an annual heirloom-seedling event called TOMATOMANIA!. (The event is now held on the East Coast as well.) Then I started remembering this impossibly beautiful, impossibly flavorful tomato terrine that Gourmet food editor/stylist Paul Grimes dreamed up for the magazine. I wanted tomatoes and I wanted them yesterday.
“The cult of the tomato has been one of our peculiar national pastimes,” wrote food historian and gardener extraordinaire William Woys Weaver in “My Life With Tomatoes,” a Gourmet article devoted to the more than two hundred varieties he’s grown. This month, those of us who had been staring out at frozen ground and bare trees, uncharitably envying our California counterparts as they put in their Big Boys and Early Girls, are finally turning our pastime into some well-deserved mania of our own. Tomatoes do that to you.
But before you choose your seedlings, you need to figure out what kind of Tomato Maniac you are. My friend and garden mate Stephen, for example, is both a Fresh and a Sauce man. He remembers his grandmother keeping a salt shaker on a ledge next to her garden when he was young, so that anyone could just pick a tomato, give it a sprinkle of salt, and eat it without even going into the kitchen, where, chances are, Grandma was cooking up some tomato sauce. So naturally we will always have San Marzanos, along with another plum variety called Ray’s Super Italian. You can take the boy out of Sicily…
He loved the heirloom Costoluto Genovese tomatoes we grew last year, claiming that what some call an “ugly” variety (thanks to its irregular ribs and lobes) tasted like sauce before he even cooked it up. He was so-so on the heirloom Mortgage Lifter (great name, average taste), and we both thought the big, flavorful hybrid Sweet Tangerine beefsteaks and the delicious Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes should make a comeback this season. I’m more of a “slice tomato and drizzle olive oil” or “eat tomato before leaving the plot” type, so I’m a fan of the big old Brandywines and the bite-size cherry varieties.
We wanted to plant a couple more types, but allowing me to choose is a dangerous game. I pick seedlings like I wager on racehorses, by name. If I were left to my own devices, we would have a pink Ferris Wheel, a black La Mer, a Tropic Boy, a Beaverlodge Slicer, and a Be My Baby. So I let more studied heads prevail, and Stephen and I dropped by for a chat with his fellow Master Gardener Josephine Alessi and her husband, landscaper Richard Litsky, who make it their business (with their two nurseries, Greystoke Gardens and Josephine’s Hand-Raised Heirlooms, in Carmel, New York) to know tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.
Before we can even get into the top picks for flavor, Josephine and Stephen make some important points on growing tomatoes:
— Heirloom or hybrid? Think about your tolerance for heartache before you choose. “Heirloom varieties are about flavor,” Josephine says, “but they’re more prone to disease. Hybrids are more disease resistant, they’re prolific, and many of them are very, very good.”
— Climbing or bush varieties? Decide whether you want determinate (bush) plants on which fruit ripens for a specific and concentrated period of time or indeterminate (climbing) vines that will need to be pruned and will produce until the frost arrives.
— Salad or sauce? Think about the way you like to eat your tomatoes, and concentrate on varieties that suit your cooking style.
— To stake or not to stake: Neither. Use cages. You can build your own from concrete reinforcement wire, available at any building-supply store.
— Banish disease: Wash the tomato cages with bleach before each season begins. Disease can overwinter on both metal and wood. To help control early and late blight, apply a liquid copper fungicide. And don’t overwater: Excessively damp soil is an ideal habitat for pathogenic fungi.
— Add magnesium to your soil: Mix a tablespoon of Epsom salts with 2 gallons of water and apply it to your plants once a season. Magnesium activates many enzymes used in photosynthesis, plant respiration, and protein synthesis.
— Companion flowers: Sunflower roots and hulls are toxic to tomatoes, so don’t grow them nearby. Roses, however, make good companions—the tomato leaves protect the roses from blackspot disease.
— Avoid cracking: Pick the tomatoes when their color begins to change from green to red (or yellow or orange, depending on the variety) and allow them to ripen off the vine; they’ll have the flavor but won’t crack from moisture, and you’ll avoid root rot.
Some of Josephine’s picks for flavor:
Black Krim: A maroon-colored, tangy, juicy slicing tomato. “When I gave one of these to a Russian lady I knew, she wept,” Josephine says. “It’s originally from the Crimean peninsula, and the woman said it tasted like home.”
Red Pear Franchi: “An all-purpose tomato, this one is meaty and sweet, with a thin skin,” she says. “It’s our favorite!”
Reisentraube: “A German grape tomato with big taste, it’s uniform and doesn’t crack.”
Costoluto Genovese: “Great sauce tomato; not a lot of the ‘gel’ that surrounds the seeds.”
Sungold: A cherry variety. “You can smell the flavor even in the plant; it has a citrusy note.”
Super Bush: An all-purpose red variety. “These are good for container gardens; they’re juicy, heavy fruit.”
Sweet Tangerine: An all-purpose tomato. “It has a texture that’s like a mango, and it’s heat tolerant.”
Scott Daigre, the brain behind the TOMATOMANIA! events, which showcase 300 varieties of heirlooms, also had a couple of favorites to throw in the mix: the large black Nyagous from Russia, and the tangerine-colored, sharp-flavored Jaune Flammé, from France.
I wanted to ask Josephine and Stephen’s opinion about an NPR story I’d heard, about a study that the British Horticultural Society is doing on the effect of the human voice on the growth of tomatoes. (Apparently, the lower and more gravelly the voice, the better the tomatoes grow.) But just then Josephine passed a Sungold vine under my nose for a good whiff. I lost my voice for a second. Curse of the Tomato Maniac.
For more information on Josephine’s Hand-Raised Heirlooms, call 845-228-0372.
Web Resource of the Week: The blogger behind The Occasional Gardener has a mean sense of design and a wonderful photographic eye (shown in work such as our photo of the Black Krim in flower, above). The site is a little bit Harlem, a little bit country, and always a visual feast.