Eat This

Ranting about heirloom tomatoes

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Quoting food writer Jane Black in today's WashPost, "Call me persnickety, but someone needs to take a stand here:  'Heirloom' is not synonymous with 'good.'"   And "The best tomato I ate last summer was not an heirloom tomato." And she quotes a disgruntled writer in Sociologia Rulalis – I must have let my subscription lapse – who calls them "bug-eaten, calloused, mottled and splitting tomatoes that may or may not taste good."

You get the idea.  Any rebuttals? Photo credit.

Posted by on August 12, 2009 at 4:23 am, in the category Eat This.
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39 responses to “Ranting about heirloom tomatoes”

  1. Faith says:

    There is the whole GM problem, plus the ever monstrous raising of the control of seed and reproductive rights of new tomato varieties.

    There are some heirloom tomatoes that are mostly good simply because they remind us of the days when food was food because it nourished us, and not necessarily because it was juicy and sweet and satisfied cravings. Always good to remember your roots and how hard people had to work to survive.

    But there are other VERY delicious heirloom varieties that the writer had obviously not been acquainted with.

    And then, I have had many a tasteless, mealy tomato that was a hybrid.

    ~Faith

  2. zephyr says:

    while it is true that the best tasting tomato I’ve ever eaten (it was from my own garden) was the heirloom called Persimmon, I’ve tasted a lot of heirloom tomatoes from farmer’s markets and elsewhere that are mediocre. And, I have no problem admitting that there were years when my Persimmon tomatoes were not terrific.

    I must also add: after sitting here and pondering this question for a few more minutes, I came to realize that it is also true that ALL of the best tasting tomatoes I’ve ever eaten were all heirlooms varieties.

    There are many mighty fine “new” tomatoes that I’ve grown and enjoyed–the best being the not so new (don’t think it’s considered an heirloom) Carmello.

  3. Peter Hoh says:

    The best tasting tomato she had last summer may have been an heirloom that was not advertised as such.

  4. I am a big fan of several heirloom tomato varieties, and grow many in my garden. But I agree with the general point that choosing heirloom simply for the word heirloom is a little absurd. There are heirloom varieties that aren’t really all that tasty (or just don’t suit the taste of particular people). And not all hybrids are tasteless balls of styrofoam bred for transportation purposes by evil corporations.

    I think maybe the writers quoted are objecting to both the fetishization of heirlooms as a category and the foodie orthodoxy that hybrids are always inferior.

  5. The thing that annoys me most about the whole “heirlooms are always better” concept is that it holds up progress in modern breeding. If people are sure without tasting that heirlooms are better than modern varieties, it makes it hard for breeders to market delicious new tomatoes, which kills the incintive for breeders to develop new tomatoes that taste better than the heirlooms (and yield more, have fewer disease problems, etc).

  6. Susan Hagen says:

    Carmello is a wonderful tomato. Around here in the Shenandoah Valley I wait for the late season heirloom German tomatoes. These don’t seem to have names, they’re just what the Mennonite farmers have been seed-saving from year to year, probably back to the Reformation. I had a BLT for dinner the other night with thick slices of these, dripping juice and flavor.

  7. I think there’s room for both hybrids and heirlooms/heritage varieties. In my tomato plot, I have Black Krim, Caspian Pink (both old Russian type tomatoes with amazing flavour) and Sungold, one of the new F1 patio types that is sweet and prolific. How they taste also depends on how much sun and water we get in any given season.
    The styrofoam nasty balls that are in grocery stores in winter? I’ll eat them only as a very very last resort.
    At least local greenhouses are moving to yearround tomato production, and a local greenhouse tomato beats a fieldgrown tasteless hybrid in winter anytime.

  8. Heirloom to me doesn’t mean “good”, it means “grown local and with care”.

    Heirloom tomatoes weren’t picked green and stuck in a cooler a day or two until they were transported. Then gassed to ripen them up. Then set on a shelf for a couple days until Subway tried to serve them to me on my turkey sandwich.

    Lucky for them they can’t take that kind of treatment.

  9. Liisa says:

    I say fine, that’s more heirloom tomatoes for me. I like being able to save seeds so that each year I don’t have to spend a gazillion dollars to plant veggies. I like the fact that heirloom Koralik cherry tomatoes show up in my garden, basically the same tomato I originally planted. Just like my beloved pound puppy rescue mutt, I don’t want tomatoes that have been bred. I just want an honest tomato.

  10. Peter Hoh says:

    Okay, now that the kids are no longer bugging me, I read the linked article and retract my earlier snide comment doubting her ability to recognize a non-heirloom.

    Now I wish I had chosen a different snarky remark, like how print journalism isn’t better than blog journalism just because it’s in print somewhere.

    In fact, in the past few years, I’ve take in many articles and columns in established newspapers only to be disappointed by the bland and mealy quality of the writing.

  11. Jay says:

    I grow heirlooms. The reason is because I am tired of buying seeds every year. Part of it is being cheap, part of it is being self-sufficient. I think a good gardener should eventually transition to collecting and planting their own seeds. It is part of the experience.

    But I think hybrids have a bad name, just like non-organics have a bad name. Hybrids are a fun and unique experiment and can be very rewarding.

    Growing heirlooms is not a moral issue and will not bring you salvation.

    Happy gardening guys!

  12. What Amelia said.

    Maybe we should pick up that ol’ European model that says things taste this way or that way based on where they are grown. Wouldn’t that be a disaster for crop commerce? Producers are familiar with this, but not yet widely for consumers of vegetables.

    No, I’m sorry- I cannot eat those tomatoes, they’re from NY’s Honeoye soil. I prefer Indiana’s Miami soil or maybe, NJ’s Downer soil.

  13. commonweeder says:

    Labels are never a sure indicator of anything. Lots of things affect a tomato’s flavor, the variety, the soil, amount of rain, the gardener and even invisible garden spirits. Not to mention our own personal taste preferences. All that aside, we do need heirlooms to keep a broad and deep gene pool, not for GMing, but to create hybrids that may become necessary as our climate changes.

  14. nobody says:

    Way to take things out of context. The author was not bashing all things heirloom. The author was not promoting GM. The author was pointing out that the current trend of obsessing over heirlooms has lead people to neglect the benefits of continued breeding and selection of plants that do well in the region. The author was promoting the efforts of state extensions (not for profit) to develop (not using GM) varieties that actually do well in the state. The heirlooms good/non heirlooms bad notion misses the reason that heirlooms are good.

    Heirlooms are good because they tend to be adapted to the region they’re from. They are good because they are bred for taste, not uniformity and shippability. But they came from somewhere: they came from people selecting plants that did well in their region and had qualities they liked. The notion that this process of selection is no longer possible and that we must cling to the past because it’s necessarily better than anything we can breed now is misguided.

    This year, I purchased heirloom pepper seeds through a national distributor. I bought them because the blurb said they were heirlooms from a guy who lives in Troy, NY. I live just across the river, so it was a sensible decision. I bought them because the seeds (from my mom, incidentally–almost heirloom) I brought with me from California really underperformed here. They’ve been selected for years to grow well as short-lived perennials in a climate that gets 9 inches of rain a year. These peppers I bought were actually one of the few heirlooms of any sort that have actually listed a breeding location in it’s catalog blurb. Had there been no breeding location in the catalog blurb, a Californian could easily picked these out as one of the heirlooms from the catalog, assuming they’d be good because they were heirloom. Then they would wonder why the seeds bred for a short growing season and daily rains were underperforming. Had there been no local heirlooms available, it would have made much more sense to look into breeding work by my state extension, or by nearby state extensions.

    By the way, I’m still growing plants descended from my mom’s seeds. They are gradually adapting to the climate. The resultant peppers in no way resemble the peppers I used to eat as a kid.

  15. Jim says:

    Agree with what Amelia said..

    And I can also add that over the last 20 years I’ve grown a few heirloom and OP tomatoes. My wife is of the opinion not a single one of them brought more taste to the table than her favorite, which is Better Boy, an F1 hybrid.

  16. Simon says:

    Simply, I would say “heirloom” is not synonymous with “good” but the reason some heirlooms are so good, is that they (generally) exist because of something straightforwardly good about how they taste. Non-heirloom varieties, in contrast, tend to be varieties selectively bred to look uniform and bright and to travel well and store a long time. If they taste good too, great, but that ain’t what moves the produce.

    Or so I think.

  17. I’m judging a tomato taste challenge this Friday so I’m going to have to get back to you all on that. It will be blind test and is open to anybody and any tomato variety so we’ll see who comes out on top.

  18. Kenoryn says:

    Although it’s not the rule I do think of the general idea as being that modern tomatoes are often bred for their ability to last and be transported long distances easily and have a look that appeals to consumers, rather than for flavour and nutrition. However, I have always thought of the issue surrounding heirloom vs. not as being one of the promotion of biodiversity and genetic diversity, and that trying to breed a ‘perfect’ tomato rather than recognizing the differences and values in many types is the road to monoculture with its ominous potential ramifications. Anyway, heirloom varieties are often more interesting.

  19. suzq says:

    Isn’t tomato growing something of a crap shoot, even in the best of years (which for many, this is not?)

    So when starting out, geez, do yourselves a favor and plant one of a bunch of varieties–just to see what succeeds in your yard and thrives in your gardening style.

    The tomato tent should be big enough for all of us.

  20. Ed Bruske says:

    By far the best tomato I have ever eaten is a Cherokee Purple, and it is an heirloom. Maybe Jane Black has never tried one.

  21. John says:

    Around here we have this big heirloom tomato taste off called Tomatopalooza. In fact it was just a few weeks ago. Every year a big bunch of people show up and bring armloads of tomatoes from their gardens (over 100 varieties). Everyone gets to taste as many as they want and even take seeds if there is something they can no longer live without. The best part is that my Cherokee Purple will be plated with some from other people’s gardens and you can really taste the difference. Some years one type will be the best of the whole feast and in others it will be the worst. Weather and location have a lot to do with flavor.

    The reason some store bought t’maters have lost their flavor is because they were stored or shipped too cool. Never let them get under 50 degrees otherwise you destroy the chemicals that give them that home grown snap.

    Some people can’t taste the difference between homegrown and store bought. Everyone’s taste buds are not the same.

  22. Jennifer Jordan says:

    hi! i’m the writer with the sociologia ruralis article, and i just wanted to let you know i’m not a bit disgruntled about heirloom tomatoes! i love the good ones, but was just observing (like the sociologist that i am) that they vary in quality, and that there are certainly instances where less than stellar tomatoes go on sale for very stellar prices–but there is no question that great heirlooms are out there (especially in home gardens and at farmer’s markets where you know your farmer and/or can get samples), and obviously quite beloved by gardeners, cooks, etc.!

  23. Rather than making the distinction between heirloom and non-heirloom we ought to be thinking more along the lines of commercial varieties versus varieties ideal for home growers.

    The latter category will include heirlooms for reasons of flavour,texture, nostalgia, true to type seeds, genetic diversity and long cropping periods. Commercial growers keen to avoid crop failures and make maximum profits will obviously lean toward hybrids and GM, seeking attributes like marketability, transportability, and storage life.

    As a keen Grow It Yourselfer heirlooms tick all the boxes for me, which is why I grow them. Simple as that really.

  24. Well geez, I’ve not tasted so many heirloom tomatoes as you all have, but I know some of them at least are really terrific. I think there are some orders of magnitude to get straight though. For instance, any tomato grown in somebody’s backyard with care and love is likely going to be better than what you’re going to buy at the grocery store. It hasn’t been packed in a box and transported, sprayed with the bad nasties and so on. For a lot of gardeners, some of the hybrids will produce excellent tomatoes with few diseases and problems. I grew up in a family where my dad grew those hybrids and they were pretty darn tasty. All that said, these days I live in a house that has a very shady garden and I miss my home-grown tomatoes, so if you grow more than you can eat, and you’d like to pop over with a few of those delicious heirlooms, I’d be happy to taste test them for you.

  25. Wendy says:

    Absolutely a rebuttal.

    If I do say so myself, my heirloom tomatoes are very attractive, though i’ve seen some very ugly, mottled, etc. ones at the farmer’s market and elsewhere. In our family’s taste test tonight, we found in order of faves for taste, texture, beauty, etc.:
    1) Hillbilly heirloom (winner 2 years in a row)
    2) the store bought ones
    3) heirloom beefsteak (we found it mealy and just “gross”)
    The Cherokee Purple is usually a contender for taste, but for the second year in a row, ended up catfaced and had to drop out of the contest. Pics to be posted on my blog as soon as I get a chance.

  26. MB says:

    Here’s to Cherokee Purple, all of ours are turning out nice this year, but late. Some of the heirlooms are dogs as far as taste goes, White Tomesol, may be unique in the way it ripens to offwhite, but like many pale tomatoes it lacks acidity, a full flavor, and has no shelf life to boot. Heirlooms in general to have many more of the compounds that make tomatoes taste good, much of which have been bred out of many of the hybrids and truck farm tomatoes. Still there is room in this world for heirlooms and hybrids.

  27. Claire Splan says:

    A number of comments here made the point that hybrid tomatoes are generally bred for appearance and transportability. But I have to ask: does anyone really know if that’s true of the varieties that seed companies package for home gardeners? I’m just wondering why Burpee, for example, would package seeds intended for home gardeners that are bred for transportability when they’re just going from garden to table? I’m truly interested if anyone has any real knowledge of this or if it’s just one of those gardening truisms we’ve come to accept without any proof.

    And just as an added note, I was told last year by some true tomato-lovers that the Big Mama hybrid plants I grew from Burpee seeds produced the best tomatoes my friends had ever eaten. (I can’t weigh in personally on this debate because I absolutely hate the taste of raw tomatoes!)

  28. Kay says:

    I grew Cherokee purple last year and was somewhat disappointed. My favorite heirloom is a Russian variety called Azoychka. Growing tomatoes in SW Florida can be interesting. This year I’ll be be growing Azoychka, Green Zebra, Black from Tula, Blondkopfchen, Limburgh Legacy Potato Leaf, and one with red and pink stripes (small beefsteak)from a tomato I bought at Pike Place Market. Growing from seeds gives me a lot of variety, but I will usually also plant one of the hybrid, disease-resistant varieties for insurance

  29. greg draiss says:

    The whole comparison of herilooms to hybrids is a farce. When speaking of poor taste the heirloom-istas forgot to say they were talking about store bought off season mealy tomatoes.

    Shame on the heirloom-istas for not being true to the talking point.

    The TROLL

  30. Jean says:

    Hybrid/heirloom – there’s good and bad varieties in each. My rant about heirlooms is over the price in the supermarket, especially for organic ones. My local natural food store sells them for $6/pound and since they’re big, one tomato can cost 6 bucks! I’m afraid my days of spending money like that are over.

  31. AVX says:

    The author makes some valid points. Heirlooms are not synonymous with good. However, different people have different tastes. She might not like heirlooms, but I certainly do.

  32. Cindy says:

    My complaint about Heirlooms is yield. I grow 4 to 6 different varieties of tomatoes each year. I’ve grown plenty of hybrids, plenty of Heirlooms. I’ve had good and poor of each. I’ve never grown anything as bad as what you get in the grocery store. However….I am starting to avoid Heirlooms because I just don’t get enough tomatoes off the plants, and they have gotten diseases more often. If I found one Heirloom that was really that much better than the hybrid varieties, I might think it was worth it, but in my small city veggie garden, if a plant is going to take up space, I want to get a lot of tomatoes off it.

  33. Madeline says:

    I’ve never very much cared for heirloom tomatoes, so I do agree with your post, however I’m becoming more open to extending my pallet. I’ve tried this thing called Chef’s Diet, where they deliver low car/high protein meals to your door, and prepare breakfast, lunch, dinner and a couple of snacks so you’re set for the day! If anyone’s ever wondered if they could be eating healthier, I’d suggest checking out the site (http://mychefsdiet.com)….for some reason heirloom tomatoes got me thinking about it lol. Enjoy!

  34. I guess it’s only fair that the East Coast gets in on what seems to be the latest trend in food ‘journalism.’ First it was the historian from a Texas college who misinterpreted the results of a preliminary study and claimed that people eating pastured pork had a significantly higher probability of contracting trichinosis. Then there was the food writer for the bastion of West Coast journalism who dumped on small organic farmers just because some of them grow mediocre fruits and vegetables. In today’s Washington Post, we get a combination of the two in Jane Black’s Snob Appeal. Here, Ms. Black offers a study published in Sociologia Ruralis in which the writer indicates that for many “the growing or purchase of heirloom tomatoes was about making a statement,” and she does so without really providing any details. Ms. Black also appears to think most heirlooms are crappy these days because of greedy farmers. I guess it’s too dangerous to go after the real culprits behind tasteless food or even commit their names to print – far easier to take shots at those who have committed everything to produce ‘real’ food.

    The somewhat sarcastic tone of the article is punctuated by a humorous caricature of a snobbish couple with photos of heirloom tomatoes in place of their heads. I find this most interesting in light of the fact that the tomato used for the woman’s head in the caricature was picked before it fully ripened, that is, still ‘green.’ Even if Ms. Black didn’t buy the tomatoes, and even if she didn’t have a hand in choosing, proofing or giving final approval for the caricature, it’s pretty clear from her writing that she doesn’t know very much about growing or buying tomatoes.

    Read the rest of Lemon Boy Journalism

  35. zephyr says:

    To Mr. Troll:
    What farce?
    Most of us commenting are making it clear that we are comparing tomatoes grown in our own gardens or by our local farmers.

    When I declare that the best tasting tomatoes I’ve ever eaten have all been heirloom varieties I am comparing them to the hybrid varieties grown in my own garden and the tomatoes–in season, both heirloom and hybrid–that I purchase from local farmers.

    So there.

    Shame on you for making such a wild accusation.

  36. greg draiss says:

    It was no wild accusation. I am referring to the heirloom-istas, in the garden and save the earth media, who declare all hybrids and modern breeding techniques as devastating to and depleting genetic diversity and proclaiming such to be the end of the world. I grow heirlooms myself for the curioisty factor.

    If you find them tasting great fine. I find them medocre as many posting here do as well.

    So there there.

    The TROLL

  37. Kristina says:

    I grow tons of heirloom tomatoes every year simply because they are the best tasting. I trial about ten new kinds each year and if they don’t perform or taste good, I don’t grow them again. I also grow a hybrid, Sungold, because it is one of the best tasting cherries I have ever had. If it ever becomes available in OP form, I’ll buy that.

    I have no issue with people developing new types of plants that taste better or have better disease resistance. But the reason I save seeds, try to grow open pollinated varieties and buy from smaller seed companies is to keep my money out of the huge seed companies that dominate our market. If a hybrid is really that much better, I grow it. Otherwise, I’ll stick with tried and true heirlooms.

  38. MB says:

    Right on Kristina, Troll, back under your bridge! I am growing 70 varieties this year, hybrids and heirlooms. Yes some heirlooms are strictly for curiosity’s sake, but many are also grown for taste. There to are many good hybrids around, but in general I use these more as sauce tomatoes not as fresh eaters, they are simply too thick skinned and honestly bland. Hybrids do offer uniformity, production, disease resistance, and ease in harvesting, but for my tomato plate I want full flavor.

  39. Sharon says:

    I planted a couple varieties of heirlooms one year along with my old tried and true Beefsteak, Better Boy and Early Girls. The heirlooms were a huge disappointment and riddled with problems. The hybrids did fine. I do agree with another poster that the German variety heirloom (don’t know the name but they’re grown by local Amish folks around Illinois) are wonderful.

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