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The dumbing down of heirloom tomatoes


Fat Guy
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This has been a summer of disappointing heirloom tomatoes, punctuated by a few bright lights at a few good restaurants. This has been happening to me for the past few summers and, at this point, the label "heirloom" has been pretty much discredited as far as I'm concerned.

When heirloom tomatoes first came on the scene at the market level, they were a breakthrough. The early restaurants serving them were putting out the best tomato dishes I'd had in my life, and every stand at the greenmarket selling heirloom tomatoes was selling great ones. Now, they're usually mediocre. They're colorful, but they don't often have any special flavor. There's even a flavor, the "mediocre heirloom tomato taste," that you don't get with mediocre regular tomatoes. I haven't yet developed the vocabulary to describe the taste, but I'll get it.

So I'm pretty much giving up on heirloom tomatoes, unless I have super-reliable information about their provenance. I think I'd rather just have a good regular old tomato than deal with the money-wasting heirloom crapshoot.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Do you suppose this is a case of "more than the market can bear"? I've been working on a theory that goes like this:

1. Excellent item gets noticed

2. Excellent item gets promoted

3. Many, many people want said excellent item

4. Not enough excellent item is available, so a substitute is brought in.

5. Substitute is sub-standard, but more people buy it for the name than those who refuse it for its poorer quality. Suppliers do just fine, thankyouverymuch.

Just how much wild-caught salmon can the market bear, for instance? How about Parmeggiano-Reggiano? Truly fine peaches? Strawberries? At what point does the promotion outstrip the supply, and then what are the suppliers to do? I think, as a rule, they'll rely on lower-quality substitutes.

I'm guessing that's what's happening with the tomatoes.

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
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I also have another thought. What's the weather been like? When it was like a drought here, and I was giving my tomatoes "regulation" water (metered amounts) they were fab. But, when we had a whole mess of rain at once, the next tomatoes that ripened were disappointing, and not within character as to what I've seen in the ones with more regular water. Didn't help that they had no water for 5 days (OOT) and then way more than anything should have in a day. Weather does play a part.

Another part of it is that they seem to breed a heirloom and still call it a heirloom, supposedly to get something or the other, which is not necessarily in keeping with the original.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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You can raise a great tomato variety in a lousy manner, producing a lousy tomato -- but one you can still call "heirloom." And, while we're complaining, I'd add that some heirloom varieties aren't very well balanced, thus producing too sweet, too watery, or insufficiently tomato-y qualities. Not all heirlooms are good fruit.

Chris Amirault

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I'm guessing you're just getting some crap tomatoes. 

That's tautological. My complaint is that I'm getting crap tomatoes. So saying that I'm getting crap tomatoes is not an explanation.

Hop over to Jersey, they've got good tomatoes over there...

I shop in New Jersey all the time, and plenty of the tomatoes sold in New York City are grown in New Jersey. No difference. And I've been having the heirloom tomato problem all over -- in probably six or seven cities this summer.

Smithy's theory seems more compelling than the "crap tomatoes, go to Jersey" theory.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Of course weather plays a part, but it's wildly inaccurate to say that there are no good tomatoes available in NYC. Like most things, where you get your ingredients makes a huge difference.

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it's wildly inaccurate to say that there are no good tomatoes available in NYC

It would have been wildly inaccurate for me to say that, but I didn't.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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You can raise a great tomato variety in a lousy manner, producing a lousy tomato -- but one you can still call "heirloom." And, while we're complaining, I'd add that some heirloom varieties aren't very well balanced, thus producing too sweet, too watery, or insufficiently tomato-y qualities.  Not all heirlooms are good fruit.

Ah, Chris, I think you've hit on something. If it bears the label "heirloom" does not necessarily make it better. There's a reason they breed these most beguiling of vegetables...

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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"Heirloom" is about as descriptive as "sustainable".

There are thousands of heirloom tomatoes. They run the gamut of flavors and textures and if you're buying something simply marked "heirloom tomatoes", you're buying marketing. Demand to know what the variety is. Heirloom can mean a lot of things but one common factor is the seeds will produce the same plant.

In general, the yields are lower but the tastes are more interesting. But not always and I'm not advocating giving up on some of the great hybrids like Early Girl.

Heirloom varieties tend to fall victim to weather more than hybrids as well. This year has been a super tomato year in California and it's just hitting its stride. The two previous years were dismal.

But side by side, a good hybrid next to a good black russian? The heirloom wins hands down.

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Heirloom varieties tend to fall victim to weather more than hybrids as well. This year has been a super tomato year in California and it's just hitting its stride. The two previous years were dismal.

But side by side, a good hybrid next to a good black russian? The heirloom wins hands down.

I've been getting some great "heirlooms" and other tomatoes at the local farmers markets in Berkeley and Oakland. However, there have been some that were mediocre. I'm learning which growers consistently produce the better tomatoes, and of which varieties. Fortunately, all the growers offer a taste of their product, unlike many supermarkets, so it's fairly easy to get tomatoes that satisfy one's preferences.

Shel

 ... Shel


 

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Oh boy, you have just cracked open a can of worms!

Speaking as a home gardener that is a tomato freak, and well acquainted with several who grow tomatoes on a larger scale and a couple that breed, this is a controversial subject among the tomato Illuminati. They can get quite prickly over the terms.

Most prefer the term "Open Pollinated" to the term "Heirloom" - but when you use the term "Open Pollinated" with the general public you are selling to, you have to get into the differences between a hybrid and an open pollinated (a tomato that will normally produce seed that is true to the parent) variety and eyes glaze over and the consumer doesn't want to know. I think the term "Heirloom" in relation to vegetables was coined in reference to a bean that was unique, treasured by a family, handed down generation to generation, and preserved. It was later applied to tomato varieties by Dr. Carolyn Male, author of "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden" who was a professor of microbiology in upstate New York, and who raised literally thousands of tomato varieties, revived several old seed lines, and preserved seeds from around the world and distributed them to the network of seed savers who work diligently to preserve genetic diversity in the tomato universe.

Her position is that a true heirloom is simply one that fits the description outlined for the bean above. She also makes allowances for "Created Heirlooms" and "Mystery Heirlooms" in her definitions, though. Then you get into "commercial" heirlooms, old varieties that were offered in seed catalogs in the late 1800's and early 1900's - it just goes on and on.

All heirloom's are in fact either the result of a cross, or are a spontaneous genetic mutation (rare) that have been stabilized to produce seed that are true to the parent.

I would not consider Green Zebra, Cherokee Chocolate or Lucky Cross heirlooms, for example, because they are just recent stabilized crosses of heirloom tomatoes or mutations. But they are sold as such, and many enjoy them.

Then there are seed companies (large and small) that add to the confusion - using the term "heirloom" simply to denote "something treasured." I kid you not! :biggrin:

Don't give up on heirlooms - just be aware that as larger growing operations are breeding open pollinated varieties for market - the same qualities will become apparent in open pollinated varieties as has become apparent in the round, red varieties. There are still some very fine open pollinated varieties out there, but not all will suit your taste or purposes. I personally don't care for the green when ripes and most of the yellows, but the blacks and purples are great for me. Hubby loves the sweeter varieties.

ETA: "Mediocre" tomato taste? I call that a "spitter." :biggrin: Heinz 1439, a Commercial Heirloom, has been a spitter for me, but I am giving it one last chance in different growing conditions before I give my spare seed away to someone who wants to give it a whirl.

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I agree with the notion that greater demand for a product often leads to declining quality. It also leads to a temptation to label things inaccurately, to be kind about it. This happened with Vidalia onions a few years back. The demand became so great that people started calling lesser sweet onions Vidalia to get a higher price. Also, the governing body in Georgia greatly increased the area where true "Vidalia" onions could be grown allowing onions not grown in the true Vidalia soil to get the moniker.

I have found that when I attempt to grow "heirloom" tomatoes, the fruits I get are wonderful, but the yield is much less than hybrid plants (only a few fruits per plant), so with limited space I grow mostly hybrids.

I wonder if people are growing heirloom/hybrid crosses to up the yield of fruits that look like heirloom.

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I agree with the notion that greater demand for a product often leads to declining quality.  It also leads to a temptation to label things inaccurately, to be kind about it.  This happened with Vidalia onions a few years back.  The demand became so great that people started calling lesser sweet onions Vidalia to get a higher price.  Also, the governing body in Georgia greatly increased the area where true "Vidalia" onions could be grown allowing onions not grown in the true Vidalia soil to get the moniker.

I have found that when I attempt to grow "heirloom" tomatoes, the fruits I get are wonderful, but the yield is much less than hybrid plants (only a few fruits per plant), so with limited space I grow mostly hybrids. 

I wonder if people are growing heirloom/hybrid crosses to up the yield of fruits that look like heirloom.

Well, there are modern "Open Pollinated" market tomatoes that are certainly being crossed with "Heirloom" tomatoes every day, and it has been going on for a couple of decades. It wouldn't be appropriate to use a hybrid tomato in a program to develop a new "Heirloom" or "Open Pollinated" variety as it is not stable, and you would end up getting traits from one, two, three or more parents of the hybrid. Mad scientist stuff goes into those hybrid tomatoes.

I'm not one of those purists who only grow either open pollinated or hybrid. They both have space in my garden.

Sungold is an example of a great hybrid. Here's a recipe for Babbo's Bavette that I am fond of, and many people think that Sungold is an "Heirloom" but it is certainly a hybrid that many people have attempted to stabilize over the years with little success.

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Well, to add some fuel, I think that a tomato grown in one's own backyard, picked ripe, cut in half, salted and eaten out of hand, is going to taste better than 99% of the tomatoes one can buy at a farmer's market, farm stand, gourmet grocer, etc. etc.

When I had a backyard and a garden, I grew Early Girls, Better Boys, better girls, romas (variety not remembered), sweet 100's, and a few other varieties. They were all infinitely tastier than any of the heirlooms I buy now. And at our local farmer's market in San Jose, there were some dry farmed tomatoes that were absolutely the bomb!

I also think that certain heirlooms just don't have that tomato flavor that we all associate with vine-ripe tomatoes. Some are too sweet and some are not enough acidic enough for my taste.

All that said, I've been getting some pretty tasty tomatoes at the Union Square green market as the summer progresses...it takes a while for those late-bearing varieties (beefsteak, for one) to get fully ripe.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Once again, my devious habit of switching the stickers on 'heirloom' and the cheap- assed hydroponic 'maters at my local Supa Mart is validated .

" No, Starvin' Marvin ! Thats MY turkey pot pie "

- Cartman

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I'm new to growing heirlooms (personal use).

While perusing through different websites there always seemed to be questions "which heirlooms to grow for sale" - basically something that tasted good, but looked great (no cracking, blossom end rot, will keep and travel well......).

My tomatoes on the other hand: some look great but more often than not don't look so good (a little cracking, uneven color, size differences) but they taste great.

Have you tried a pick-your-own farm?

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i'm with chris on this one. too often we still fall into the "brand name" fallacy when it comes to agriculture. it's all about the farmers. i'd much rather have an early girl tomato grown by a good farmer than a brandywine grown by a hack. these things aren't cars: you're not buying the "cadillac" of tomatoes.

and also, kudos to anne for the excellent explication of the heirloom phenomenon.

to get tomatoes with great flavor not only involves careful farming, but later harvest than is usually practical for a product that is going to be shipped.

and that's where those little grape tomatoes come in--they're usually pretty terrific (just by flavor, not by bragging rights--they're very new varieties). Grapes start out higher in sugar (12-13 brix compared to 8-9 for most tomatoes), but they also have fairly thick skins, so they can be picked riper and still survive shipping. When in doubt about what to get, those are a terrific fallback.

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I'm pretty lucky in that I buy my heirlooms (and Early Girls and Beefsteaks) from Nina Planck's parents and the younger (equally dedicated) couple now holding down their farm while they do a little construction. Even then, the quality varies from week to week and season to season, this year's crop striking me as a little less acidic than I prefer.

One thing I've noticed, though, is Whole Foods and other "gourmet" markets selling as "heirlooms" tomatoes with the irregular shapes of their open pollinated brethren (though no cracks) but with a thick, waxy skin that puts me off to the point that I've never been able to bring myself to try them. I wonder if some evil seed companies are crossing my Cherokee Purples with Mexican Reds in hopes of creating something that resembles an heirloom in every aspect except taste.

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It's my impression that sometimes cracking has to do more with irregular water than the tomato type (but I could be wrong; Anne, want to weigh in on this?).

Well, I can try, and agree with you that cracking in my experience and that of others I've spoken with does have a lot to do with uneven watering. There are some varietal problems as well. Sungold will crack some years with a heavy dew, other years not at all. We have had an active rainy season this year, and theoretically my 'maters should be cracking, but aren't except for one or two, which is rare. But, I do have unusually tough skins this year as well, and I understand that has more to do with environmental conditions than varietal as well. Heat will induce a thick skin, I've heard.

I think there is a difference between radial cracking (cracking from the stem end to the blossom end) in which case I can usually point at uneven watering and concentric cracking. I think concentric cracking, the cracks around the stem end, seems to have a more varietal influence. I see more radial cracking than concentric cracking in Sungold. I see more concentric cracking in my beefsteaks.

I've also heard the tendency for blossom end rot is expressed with uneven watering some times. The only time I have a problem with it is with a couple of plum types and beefsteaks late in the season.

Sheesh, I wish I had all the answers. Just lost two seedlings for my fall plot to the crud. They are Russian varieties though, so I will resow and see how they do when the UV and heat goes down next month.

I think we could have much better tasting tomatoes on the market, if we could convince the consumer that an imperfect tomato still may be a great tasting tomato.

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Yea, I think it was the case that in the early days of the "heirloom tomato phenomenon" not that many people were growing them, and those that were growing them were doing so with care. So, in those days, pretty much any time you got your hands on an heirloom tomato variety, it was going to be delicious.

Now that bigger businesses have figured out that there is money to be made selling these varieties, you find more and more heirloom tomatoes in places where you previously wouldn't expect them... places like Whole Foods and middlebrow restaurants not known for using slocal produce. The result is that an heirloom tomato is no longer the virtual guarantee of quality it used to be. I don't expect a Brandywine from Whole Foods to be particularly good. On the other hand, the heirloom tomatoes I get from my guys down in the Union Square Greenmarket, the same guys I bought from back when heirloom tomatoes were a relative rarity, are still just as good as they always were.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Yea, I think it was the case that in the early days of the "heirloom tomato phenomenon" not that many people were growing them, and those that were growing them were doing so with care.  So, in those days, pretty much any time you got your hands on an heirloom tomato variety, it was going to be delicious.

Now that bigger businesses have figured out that there is money to be made selling these varieties, you find more and more heirloom tomatoes in places where you previously wouldn't expect them... places like Whole Foods and middlebrow restaurants not known for using slocal produce.  The result is that an heirloom tomato is no longer the virtual guarantee of quality it used to be.  I don't expect a Brandywine from Whole Foods to be particularly good.  On the other hand, the heirloom tomatoes I get from my guys down in the Union Square Greenmarket, the same guys I bought from back when heirloom tomatoes were a relative rarity, are still just as good as they always were.

So, shouldn't Shaw head down to the Union Square Greenmarket and get himself some of these tomatoes he's having such difficulty finding?

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I've been getting "heirloom" tomatoes with intense, incredible flavor at the farmers market in Hoboken (NJ) which is every Tuesday. They're "brandywine" variety, and they're rich with sweet tomato flavor. (They may be too sweet and low in acidity for some, I don't know.) The grower is Melick's Town Farm in Oldwick, NJ, and I've been enjoying their tomatoes for years. Last year, I thought their "purple cherokee" were even more delicious, but they tell me it was a small yield and they're not bringing them this year. I've had other tomatoes this year that were disappointing, but not from this stand in Hoboken. So they do exist.

But what the devil is happening with Cantaloupes? I buy melons that smell obscenely ripe and sweet from all the farmers (at 2 markets, Hoboken and Newport Jersey City), and they even smell fabulous when you cut them open, and they have no flavor!

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Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

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