2000s Archive

My Life with Tomatoes

Originally Published September 2000
Nurturing more than 200 varieties leads to a gardener toward a perfect mix: something old, something new, something borrowed, and something…well, green, purple,or orange.

Tomato planting came early this year, due to a relentlessly hot spring. But no matter how early you start them, tomatoes seem to follow their own instincts and peak out in August (some claim it’s the light of a full August moon that does it), then glide graciously into a fulsome September harvest. If the tomato gods require moonlight to work their magic, the largesse of their culinary rewards is vast, for the list of distinct varieties of tomatoes runs into the thousands.

At last count, I was growing 223 varieties of tomatoes on a rotating basis, about 30 varieties a year (since I must plant them at a distance from one another to protect seed purity). I refuse to grow F1 hybrids, first-generation crosses that don’t resemble either parent—I prefer to save my own seeds from plants that grow true year to year. I save money, and I avoid the many hybrids that have been bred for sweetness, as though more sugar is always a good thing. The big seed companies may have a sweet tooth, but I know from more than 30 years of experience that tomatoes can be as different from one another as apples are from squash. And vive la différence!

Planting about 30 varieties a year means that every season there is something new and something old. Also, it spreads the bounty of taste and color over the summer, from early heirlooms such as June Pink or Chalk’s Early Jewel to some of the fall drying tomatoes such as Ramillete de Mallorca, which can be hung up on the vine in a dry, sunny room and picked like sun-dried figs well into winter. Why settle for “paraffin reds,” those faded Dorian Gray tomatoes that are shipped to us as winter’s excuse for summer luxury? Tomatoes are tropical berries. They are meant to be eaten when the sun is high and the weather is hot.

That’s why I find their delicate acidity so refreshing when they are eaten off the vine. But just how many lifetimes does it take to eat through the many varieties of pommes d’amour, or “apples of love,” as tomatoes were once called? The true connoisseur is like a distance runner, who creates a pace and sticks with it. It may take a few years, but no matter what, I take my seasonal 30 tomatoes one at a time and not too many at once, either. I enjoy pondering their subtleties: the color and texture of the skin or the minute shifts in flavor that occur as the fruit ripens on or off the vine. Sometimes there are hints of lemon, sometimes a snappy burst of parsley, or even a background flavor suggesting fruit—raspberries, perhaps. And if the vines themselves are near sweet basil or rosemary, the airborne aromas of those herbs can affect the way the fruit tastes. Tomatoes are as varied as grapes, and if you group tomatoes by the way they react to acidity (lemon juice or vinegar), salt, sugar, or even rose water (just a drop), then you can also match your tomatoes with your favorite terrace wines. My cork-strewn garden is proof of that!

Years ago, I re-created an 1830s kitchen garden to match the heyday of my house (it was then a well-known tavern), so to be accurate, I should limit myself to old heirlooms. But my garden is also an experimental lab where I breed vegetables, and I often veer from the historical and aim for the unusual. I try to impose a dignified, visually appealing order on the scholarly disarray.

Tomato plants have good looks, if you consider the large variety of leaf types and even the flowers, from tiny yellow stars to clusters of 40 or more. In his Le Jardinier fleuriste, 18th-century French garden writer Louis Liger even recommends using tomatoes as flower-garden ornamentals, an aspect of tomato connoisseurship that I don’t overlook.

Among the older ornamentals, my decorative tomatoes descending from a collection of Madame Aglaé Adanson (1775–1852) includes the rare Tomate Pomme d’Api, which looks like a lady apple. More recent—and more accessible— are Lewis Darby’s ingenious, brilliantly colored miniatures Ochradel, Debbidel, and Chocodel (which resembles a chocolate bonbon). Then there are the fuzzy-leafed “angora” types such as Elberta Girl or Red Peach; the golden-yellow greenery of Tigerette Cherry; and the drooping fernery of Têton de Vénus. This last, the ultimate pomme d’amour, has contours to make Dolly Parton weep with envy. Dare I suggest that tomatoes can be sexy?

Come to think of it, the true love of American hearts is indeed the tomato, even in this age of macho chile-pepper mania. Ever since tomatoes like Trophy and Paragon made horticultural history in 1870 by breeding out lumpiness in favor of a round, smooth shape, the cult of the tomato has been one of our peculiar national pastimes. Wealthy Victorians built greenhouses to force tomatoes so that they could serve them vine-ripe during the snows of winter. Brandywine, one of the most popular of all the heirloom tomatoes today, was originally considered a winter forcing tomato for Philadelphia’s Main Line estates. Today no salad-time discussion is complete without a word on the state of the season’s tomatoes.

I suppose that this obsession with edible status symbols is one of the reasons we started to ship tomatoes during the off-season. First it was the March tomatoes shipped in from Bermuda, then the railroads made it possible to whisk them across the country all year long. The perennial complaints about poor flavor have never changed. The tomatoes shipped by steamer tasted no better than the green ones easterners now get from California that are supposed to ripen en route somewhere around St. Louis. The chic of January crate tomatoes long ago lost its luster. Enjoy a good apple instead. Did I mention that there are more than 2,300 varieties of apples?

Subscribe to Gourmet