Heirloom Tomatoes

Shopping at the farmer’s market has become part of my Saturday morning routine. I love selecting fresh, local fruits and vegetables. I enjoy the open air environment and getting to speak with the vendors, who are consistently more friendly and knowledgeable than the people who work in the produce section of grocery stores. I often talk to the vendors and ask them to select ripe fruits for me, or generally teach me more about food. I am always up for trying something new, and even the weirdest looking vegetables don’t scare me away.

So when I noticed heirloom tomatoes in many stands, I could not help but be curious.

At first I brushed them off, because let’s be honest-they are so ugly! The skin is cracked and discolored, and the fruits are often weirdly shaped-almost monstrous. None of the fruits boasted the perfect rounded shaped or bright red color that I associate with ripe tomatoes.

However one morning, as I was picking through some green beans, I heard one lady say to her companion, “Have you ever tried a heirloom tomato? These are the best tasting tomatoes you will ever eat!” This assertion caught my attention, but I did not take the leap of faith and buy any heirlooms that day.

A couple weeks later, I had the chance to talk with a very enthusiastic tomato grower at the farmer’s market about heirloom tomatoes. He explained that heirloom tomatoes are not hybrid breed like the commercial varieties in stores. Hybrid tomatoes are bred for disease resistance, greater number of fruit per plant, shape, size, color, and longer shelf life. The seeds are not able to produce progeny with their same traits, so growers have to buy new seeds each year.

In contrast, heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated; therefore the collected seeds are able to bear fruits which resemble those of the parent plant. These plants have greater genetic variation than the hybrid plants, and also lack the gene that provides the red color. Scientists recently speculated that this gene may be associated with lower sugar levels, which could cause store bought tomatoes to be less flavorful (see NY Times article below).

The vendor went on to say that, “Heirloom tomatoes today include the same varieties that Thomas Jefferson grew in his garden;” that statement stuck with me more than anything else he said. These tomatoes are like antiques (thus the name heirlooms); seeds that are passed down for generations. And while a lot of the genetic and biology stuff went over my head, I can appreciate tomatoes with great taste over perfectly shaped red spheres.

If you are interested:

http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/100/5/1085.full (This one is science-y, but very informative)