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The Daily Guide - Waynesville, MO
  • Jim Hillibish: Heirlooms are the ugly but tasty tomatoes

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  • GateHouse News Service I climbed on the trend and grew heirloom tomatoes this season. I thought “crop failure” –– these guys will never be tomatoes.
    The fruits are crazy, the opposite of all notions of tomatoes. It took the consolation of a friend to know everything is fine.
    “That’s the way they grow,” I was told.
    Our first plate was memorable. If a tomato has character, these are the Andy Rooney of tomatoes. They even look like him, sort of.
    We vote with our money. Heirlooms finally have made the jump from tree huggers to mainstream consumers despite their higher prices. They’re now playing in grocery stores and farmers markets across the land. One thing remains. They’re still a hard sell to newcomers.
    Buy it anyway
    If you didn’t know its background, you’d never buy an heirloom tomato. They’re downright ugly, seemingly the anti-tomato. It requires marketing smarts to get these puppies out the door.
    They’re cranky, craggy, ornery and some come with a white scum that looks like a disease. You want colors? They range from red to golden to purple. Some never lose their green. The reds often are dark, with ugly green streaks, or pink. You’d confuse one variety with an apple. Even the cherries can look more like grapes.
    Americans are accustomed to perfectly round globes of reds and yellows. This, coupled with the desire to transport safely, has driven the tomato hybridizers for decades.
    Backyard bonanza
    Heirloom, heritage or legacy tomatoes were common before the 1930s, when almost all veggies came from backyard gardens. Then universities began hybridizing them, choosing visual and genetic characteristics and combining them in one plant.
    Consumers went nuts and never complained about the one obvious thing: The old-timers tasted better than these “laboratory” tomatoes.
    Gardeners quickly said “good riddance” to heirlooms, naturally pollinated by insects and the winds. You never know exactly what you’ll get. They’re prone to a lot of diseases that the hybrids, on the other hand, prevent. And they can take a long time to produce fruit.
    Lucky for us, some forward-thinking gardeners kept the heirlooms going, jealously protecting the mother seed. You had to know somebody to grow them.
    But no longer. The organic-gardening revolution (no chemicals) is spilling over to heirlooms. Consumers are demanding them, and farmers and groceries are obliging.
    Flavor blowout
    The taste difference is startling. Heirlooms lack the genetic mutation that causes tomatoes to over-produce sugars. That keeps the sweet in perfect balance with the acid, resulting in a well-defined tomato flavor.
    Taste a tomato sauce made with Mama Leone’s plum style. No wonder so many great chefs are growing their own up on the roof.
    Page 2 of 2 - The range of flavors and textures will amaze you. Some are spicy explosive and nearly seedless. Others are quite sharp. Still others are so flavor concentrated that they need salad dressing to temper it.
    In the markets, you’ll not yet find a big bin of heirlooms. Often there’s just a basket full, provided by a local gardener. Each season, we’re seeing more heirlooms. Their appeal, once a niche, is close to a breakout.
    We’ll only see more heirloom-organic vegetables. Cucumbers, beans and sweet corn are next. If they’re half as intriguing as the tomatoes, they’ll be a slam-dunk.Jim Hillibish is a food writer for the Canton (Ohio) Repository. Reach him at jim.hillibish@cantonrep.com.
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