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The dumbing down of heirloom tomatoes


Fat Guy
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Now, I have agreed that ten years ago the words "heirloom tomato" were almost always associated with high quality and that they are not so today (primarily because of new entrants to the heirloom tomato growing, handling and selling chain).

We are in agreement on this, the fundamental point here.

But I never thought that "heirloom tomato" was a designation of quality.

But it was, as you just noted, a virtual guarantee of quality -- a designation you could indeed rely on. And now it isn't.

I've always known that tomato quality is highly dependent on the way they are grown and handled, so it's no surprise to me that the heirloom tomatoes at Whole Foods and Stew Leonard's are not so great

I wouldn't know, having never purchased an heirloom tomato at either place. I'm not sure I've even seen an heirloom claim at Stew Leonard's, and I don't really shop at Whole Foods -- I just go in to look around when I'm near Time Warner.

I have, however, purchased mediocre heirloom tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket twice this summer. I've also purchased good ones. (As well as good and bad ones at Fairway, Eli's, Vinegar Factory, and a few other places -- the point being that sometimes they're good and sometimes they're bad). As I noted in the posts you referenced, I specifically make a point of shopping at the Greenmarket during apple and tomato seasons (your math seems to assume I go once per season?). And I've been doing this over a period of years. Are you buying heirloom tomatoes from a variety of vendors, and have you been doing so over time? If so, I'm really surprised you've not noticed the same trend I have.

When I said earlier that "At this point you can't just tell someone 'go to the Union Square Greenmarket and get some heirloom tomatoes' and expect that person to come back with great tomatoes. A few years ago, you could have done that. Now, you have to direct the person to specific stands on specific days, as well as limit the time frame (since even the reputable growers are now selling heirlooms earlier and later than in the past)," I thought that was a pretty obvious claim. Paul Raphael seems to have had a similar experience, and Catherine Iino has had the problem at other farmer's markets elsewhere (as have I). Do you seriously disagree with my statement? If so I'll make a commitment to doing further research before making a stronger claim.

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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I will reiterate the weather thing. OK, I'm growing for home consumption. I watered regularly throughout this summer, which was for the most part dryer than toast left in a toast rack for a day.

But, then we had the big rain. Like 10" in five days. Oy, those tomatoes split, and they becaome watery, and didn't have nearly the flavour that they had when Mother Susan was doling out the water (generously, BTW). Regular rain is better, especially when it comes doled out, not dumped in unbelievable quanties.

So, assuming that the tomatoes have been grown like mine, weather could make a much bigger difference than we think. This has been a very disappointing tomato season, despite the abnormal heat.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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I have, however, purchased mediocre heirloom tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket twice this summer. I've also purchased good ones. (As well as good and bad ones at Fairway, Eli's, Vinegar Factory, and a few other places -- the point being that sometimes they're good and sometimes they're bad). As I noted in the posts you referenced, I specifically make a point of shopping at the Greenmarket during apple and tomato seasons (your math seems to assume I go once per season?). And I've been doing this over a period of years. Are you buying heirloom tomatoes from a variety of vendors, and have you been doing so over time? If so, I'm really surprised you've not noticed the same trend I have.

Maybe you should stick to buying your tomatoes in little plastic packages, in January. Heirloom tomatoes by definition are varieties that have been around for generations - what led you to believe that such a standard was any sort of guarantee of quality? Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you don't know where to buy good tomatoes at the Greenmarket and the ones you buy at grocery stores and gourmet shops are inconsistent. Do you happen to know the names of any of the farms where you purchased mediocre tomatoes? As much as you seem to like brushing aside my comments about knowing your vendors and buying from people you trust, it's one of the only ways to be sure you're getting a good product.

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Maybe you should stick to buying your tomatoes in little plastic packages, in January.

In January, that's exactly what I do. As Russ Parsons commented earlier on this topic: "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."

Heirloom tomatoes by definition are varieties that have been around for generations - what led you to believe that such a standard was any sort of guarantee of quality?

Because it was. As a simple, empirical fact, it used to be that tomatoes labeled "heirloom" were almost always great, and now they're often mediocre.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you don't know where to buy good tomatoes at the Greenmarket and the ones you buy at grocery stores and gourmet shops are inconsistent.

It's accurate to say that the ones I buy at the Greenmarket are inconsistent.

Do you happen to know the names of any of the farms where you purchased mediocre tomatoes?

Of course.

Now, Dave, let me ask you a few questions.

- When was the last time you bought heirloom tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket?

- Based on wherever you shop, do you disagree that the quality of heirloom tomatoes, at farmer's markets, has become more inconsistent over the past decade?

- Do you agree that the designation "heirloom tomatoes" was, a decade ago, a good guarantee of quality, and that now it is not?

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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Now, Dave, let me ask you a few questions.

- When was the last time you bought heirloom tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket?

- Based on wherever you shop, do you disagree that the quality of heirloom tomatoes, at farmer's markets, has become more inconsistent over the past decade?

- Do you agree that the designation "heirloom tomatoes" was, a decade ago, a good guarantee of quality, and that now it is not?

I don't shop at the Union Square Greenmarket, it's rather inconveniently located for me.

The quality of the tomatoes available at the farmers market here is consistent - some vendors are consistently good, others consistently bad. I buy great tomatoes from Dirty Girl at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. I used to buy great tomatoes from Mariquita also, but they stopped selling at the SF market. There are vendors selling cardboard flavored tomatoes at nearly every farmers market. A lot of the tomatoes we eat come from our garden.

I don't agree that the designation "heirloom tomatoes" was ever a reliable indication of tomato quality. I think a decade ago it was a good way to identify vegetable purveyors that cared more than average about the product they were selling or were trying to offer something different. That didn't guarantee that they had a good product, but it was a sign that they were trying. I don't remember thinking the quality of tomatoes was consistent. We obviously agree that they aren't consistent now.

I think over the past decade more farmers have been growing a larger variety of tomatoes, some of them open pollinated others hybrid. Some have had more success than others. I think the biggest change locally anyway in terms of tomato quality hasn't been any sort of decline in heirlooms, it's been the increased availability of incredibly flavorful dry farmed tomatoes. I don't think dry farming is viable everywhere, and again it doesn't guarantee quality, but a small handful of producers are doing a great job with this technique.

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Viva,

Not that it matters, and I am certainly not one to discriminate against a tomato for being an F1 hybrid [see my posts upthread]. Early Girl is an F1Hybrid and one heck of a performer under so many climates and such trying conditions over so many years.

g

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Just getting away from the "heirloom" part for a moment and focussing on "very tasty tomatoes", let's consider one example from Japan.

A section in Japan prizes high Brix/sweetness, and two very popular cultivars, both F1 hybrids, [open pollinated are hybrids too but in a different sense!] Momotaro and its red conterpart, Odoriko reign.

These are sold at varying prices that reflect their Brix levels that are posted on the fruit. The very highest, I believe 9-10, are sold at the usual unbelievable prices, reflecting the effort required to reach those [above normal] levels.

Sorry to say it, but I've had so many awful, simply terrible, Momotaro tomatoes that this year, I gave up buying them completely. I think in Japan a lot of their popularity - in the mainstream part of the market, at least - is based on colour, shape, and quite possibly even their watery tastelessness. The best may well be great, but the average are practically inedible for anyone who loves tomatoes.

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Yellow Pear is an example of an "Heirloom" tomato that is just awful according to my taste, no matter how well it is grown. It's been around forever, and is probably the first heirloom tomato that most people are exposed to - although they don't know it is an heirloom.

I don't care for most of the Japanese hybrids either - Sungold being the exception. Momotaro is way to sweet for me - but that's my taste. There seems to be a market in Japan for very sweet veggies - there is a super sweet corn hybrid that is supposed to hold onto it's sugars when kept out of Japan.

Tomato flavor is so subjective. Then you have first fruits that are never as good as later fruits. I think it is more the wider range of heirloom varieties in the market, not the decline of heirlooms as a label. At one time the only heirlooms you could find were just three or four very good varieties.

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I wouldn't buy them if they were obviously lousy! But yes, I see obviously lousy ones when browsing.

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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Because it was. As a simple, empirical fact, it used to be that tomatoes labeled "heirloom" were almost always great, and now they're often mediocre.

I'll offer a more dispassionate view.

You’re both right, and it’s not about tomatoes, really, but the natural path of a product following the curve from craftsman to commodity. This is very well understood mechanism in product development circles: When you have a new product being nurtured by a relatively few number of artisans, you essentially guarantee quality. A limited market won't tolerate substandard.

As the market develops, with a demand that virtually guarantees that whatever you put into the market will consumed, the number of providers will increase, and there will be, as result, a tremendously greater amount of fruit moving through the market. Greater amount of fruit from larger number of vendors leads to natural variations in quality when you look at the overall market for heirloom tomatoes.

This is what Steven is saying: quality across the population of products is varying far more than it used to, and you can no longer assume that it’s going to be good. And he’s right; and this is natural and expected (the variation, not that Steven is right!).

But even in the face of increased production across numerous vendors, with the resultant quality variations across the population of all heirloom tomatoes being sold, there remains a consistency within each vendor, and some take more pride than others. The craftsmen are still there, just maybe a little more lost in the noise.

The “good” tomatoes from 1997 are still there, just adrift amid a sea of competitors. You have to seek them out. That’s what Dave is saying. And he’s right.

It’s not about tomatoes. You see the same thing in every trendy food (or insert your favorite product category here) that’s caught the commodity wave. It’s almost like saying you can’t get good goat’s milk cheese anymore, or olive oil, or good Angus burgers (isn’t there a McDonald’s thread somewhere on that one??). The truth is that you can, but you have to know where to look. As the market matures, the consumer has to become more discriminating for things that matter to him. You don't buy the good olive oil at Costco -- at least I don't. My mother does.

One of the points of eG, as far as I’m concerned, is having that dialog about where to look for the quality of experience, and help each other isolate the artisans and craftsmen that are dear to us; but this forum is equally critical in identifying where we’re in danger of trending into territory where experiences are starting differ as the market evolves (be it EVOO or Heirloom tomatoes) and to educate the greater base about the experiences that are possible.

Good topic. I hate that you guys are bickering over this (entertaining as it might be!)

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I wouldn't buy them if they were obviously lousy! But yes, I see obviously lousy ones when browsing.

I don't know how one can tell whether a tomato is good or "lousy" without tasting it.

As a simple, empirical fact, it used to be that tomatoes labeled "heirloom" were almost always great, and now they're often mediocre.

I may be in the minority, but I don't think they're often mediocre - when purchased from reliable vendors. You're making pronouncements without "empirical" fact. Just like in the o.p. of this topic.

And Melkor, I remember buying dry-farmed tomatoes back in the early 90's at the San Jose farmer's market - they were great!

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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I wouldn't buy them if they were obviously lousy! But yes, I see obviously lousy ones when browsing.

I don't know how one can tell whether a tomato is good or "lousy" without tasting it.

There are plenty of visual cues -- the same cues you presumably use to choose one tomato over another when you're given a choice of tomatoes.

As a simple, empirical fact, it used to be that tomatoes labeled "heirloom" were almost always great, and now they're often mediocre.

I may be in the minority, but I don't think they're often mediocre - when purchased from reliable vendors.

But all the vendors are not reliable -- not even at the best farmer's markets I've been to. That's a major shift from a decade ago, when, as far as I recall, every vendor selling heirloom tomatoes was selling excellent ones.

Perhaps some folks don't consider that to be a noteworthy change. Perhaps they also don't consider it noteworthy that we are now awash in a sea of mediocre heirloom tomatoes. For whatever reason, that phenomenon may not be personally relevant to the person who always buys from a single reliable vendor. However, to the world at large, the decline of a once-excellent commodity is relevant. The fact that a designation that once meant something now means next to nothing is relevant. No amount of repetition of the claim that you can still get good product from vendors that still sell good product is going to change that.

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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The fact that a designation that once meant something now means next to nothing is relevant. No amount of repetition of the claim that you can still get good product from vendors that still sell good product is going to change that.

Well, this a pretty sweeping statement - and not necessarily one born of fact. It's a pronouncement that comes from your opinion of the alleged heirloom tomatoes you and a few others have had the misfortune of spending your money on.

And, I submit that you can't know how a tomato will taste just by looking.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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It's a sweeping statement, but I didn't realize anybody disagreed with it. I was under the impression that we had unanimity here on the fact that mediocre heirloom tomatoes are now a common phenomenon and that the "heirloom" designation, by itself, no longer is a guarantee of anything.

I believe what you and others have said is yes, that's true, but if you go to specific vendors you can still get excellent heirloom tomatoes. What percentage of the market for heirlooms do you think those specific vendors are now responsible for? Less than 1%? They used to be 100%. That, to me, is remarkable.

On the visual inspection point, Mitch, do you select your tomatoes totally at random? Or do you believe that when you look at a group of tomatoes you can pick the better ones out of the group? Needless to say, false positives and false negatives are a fact of life when you select produce. But surely you agree that there are plenty of visual cues to help steer you one way or the other, and that they're worth something. Don't you sometimes see a vendor and walk on past because everything *looks* crummy?

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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It's a sweeping statement, but I didn't realize anybody disagreed with it. I was under the impression that we had unanimity here on the fact that mediocre heirloom tomatoes are now a common phenomenon and that the "heirloom" designation, by itself, no longer is a guarantee of anything.

I believe what you and others have said is yes, that's true, but if you go to specific vendors you can still get excellent heirloom tomatoes. What percentage of the market for heirlooms do you think those specific vendors are now responsible for? Less than 1%? They used to be 100%. That, to me, is remarkable.

Mediocre tomatoes of all types have been a common phenomenon for decades. You're in the distinct minority when you argue that the "heirloom" designation was a guarantee of anything. You've always needed to shop with good vendors to get good tomatoes. Good tomatoes have always been a small percentage of the tomatoes available.

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I've scanned back through the topic and I can't see any reading of it that supports the claim that I'm "in the distinct minority when you argue that the 'heirloom' designation was a guarantee of anything." For example, Sam has posted a couple of variants of the following:

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.

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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i'm an heirloom tomato neophyte, so i can't comment on trends (or the names of the varieties in question) but this discussion inspired me to try several of them.

i went to the greenmarket this weekend and picked out five of the best looking examples i could find, each one a different variety.

final score: one was insanely delicious, one was so flavorless that i threw it out, and three were ok ... no more flavorful or well textured than what you normally get this time of year at a supermarket, though a bit more interesting tasting and a lot more interesting looking.

As others have pointed out, one of the things about heirloom tomatoes is that some of the varieties aren't to everyone's liking, even if they are good examples of that particular cultivar. I, for example, have never liked Green Zebra (which is technically not an "heirloom" since it dates to 1983). And other cultivars I have found to be either too sweet or insufficiently acidic for my taste. These are the kinds of tomatoes that I might like to have together with several different cultivars in a mixed heirloom tomato salad, but wouldn't care to eat on their own. All of which is to say that, for sandwiches and just plain eating, I stick with the cultivars that I have found to have an intensely "tomatoey" taste -- which is not true of all cultivars. I wonder if you might have bought some cultivars that didn't appeal to you.

Now, I have agreed that ten years ago the words "heirloom tomato" were almost always associated with high quality and that they are not so today (primarily because of new entrants to the heirloom tomato growing, handling and selling chain).

We are in agreement on this, the fundamental point here.

But I never thought that "heirloom tomato" was a designation of quality.

But it was, as you just noted, a virtual guarantee of quality -- a designation you could indeed rely on. And now it isn't.

No, it wasn't a designation. It was a way of describing a certain kind of tomato.

"Heirloom tomato" was no more a designation of quality than the words "apple pie" or "chicken fried steak." For example, for the first 30 years of my life "chicken fried steak" was synonymous with "delicious" because the only chicken fried steak I ever tasted was prepared by my grandmother, who had been cooking it for something like 80 years. Since she passed away, I have had chicken fried steak prepared by a variety of home and professional cooks and, well, while I have had some outstanding examples, the overall quality doesn't measure up on average. Does this mean that "chicken fried steak has been dumbed down" or is it the case that there was always wide variability in the quality of chicken fried steak, and that that variability had been previously unrecognied by me? I would argue that it was the latter, and I would argue that the something similar has happened for you with heirloom tomatoes.

I would also argue that heirloom tomatoes are no different from other tomatoes in being highly suceptible to weather and other growing conditions and practices, harvest time, post-harvest handling and similar variables. My mother has grown tomatoes every season for longer than I've been alive, so this is something I have always known about tomatoes.

I've always known that tomato quality is highly dependent on the way they are grown and handled, so it's no surprise to me that the heirloom tomatoes at Whole Foods and Stew Leonard's are not so great

I wouldn't know, having never purchased an heirloom tomato at either place. I'm not sure I've even seen an heirloom claim at Stew Leonard's, and I don't really shop at Whole Foods -- I just go in to look around when I'm near Time Warner.

I have, however, purchased mediocre heirloom tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket twice this summer. I've also purchased good ones. (As well as good and bad ones at Fairway, Eli's, Vinegar Factory, and a few other places -- the point being that sometimes they're good and sometimes they're bad). As I noted in the posts you referenced, I specifically make a point of shopping at the Greenmarket during apple and tomato seasons (your math seems to assume I go once per season?). And I've been doing this over a period of years. Are you buying heirloom tomatoes from a variety of vendors, and have you been doing so over time? If so, I'm really surprised you've not noticed the same trend I have.

Steven, I've been buying heirloom tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket to the tune of a 5 to 12 times a summer since I first noticed them for sale over ten years ago. So, with all due respect, I think my sample is a little better than "twice a summer." I also don't agree that "twice this summer" is a sufficient sample to support your assertion that the quality of greenmarket heirloom tomatoes is in radical decline.

For example, when did you buy these tomatoes? More than 1/3 of the days in August 2007 had rain in the Northeast. These are not conditions that are likely to lead to outstanding tomatoes. What cultivars did you buy, and were they cultivars that you have enjoyed before?

When I said earlier that "At this point you can't just tell someone 'go to the Union Square Greenmarket and get some heirloom tomatoes' and expect that person to come back with great tomatoes. A few years ago, you could have done that. Now, you have to direct the person to specific stands on specific days, as well as limit the time frame (since even the reputable growers are now selling heirlooms earlier and later than in the past)," I thought that was a pretty obvious claim.

It is an obvious claim on it's face, but I think it is also a misleading one and I disagree in several ways.

If it was true that, several years ago, you could simply tell someone to go to the Union Square Greenmarket and get some heirloom tomatoes, this is true only because heirloom tomatoes were being brought to the Union Square Greenmarket by one or two growers at that time. So, by directing someone to the USGM for heirloom tomatoes you were, in effect, directing them to specific stands. Those same growers are still producing outstanding heirloom tomatoes, and have been joined by a number of other growers who have started to produce heirloom tomatoes. They come from various areas around NYC with different microclimates and growing tehniques. They can all produce outstanding heirloom tomatoes when the conditions are right, but from time to time they may also produce less-than-optimal heirloom tomatoes depending on things like rain, sunlight and temperature. It is also true that, back in the day, the few original grower-sellers of heirloom tomatoes at the USGM could have some less-than-peak tomatoes, depending on the same variables. Finally, also the case that not all the growers who expermiented with heirloom tomatoes have stuck with it over the years, because they weren't getting the results they wanted. So, in reality, not all that much has changed at the USGM with respect to heirloom tomatoes: It was always possible to get less-than-optimal heirloom tomatoes, the best heirloom tomato growers are still there, and more than anything else, it's a farmer's market: If you want to get the best of something, you have to talk to the growers and ask them things such as "what's good right now?" and "there's been a lot of rain lately, how is that affecting the heirloom tomatoes?" Most of the time, if they're selling you a sub-optimal tomato, they'll be up-front about it: "The rain's made them a little watery and the flavor isn't as concentrated as it can be. It's supposed to try out later in the month, and we think we'll get some amazing flavor in about another week. But these are probably as good as it gets right now" or "We started these out early in the hoophouse so we could bring them to market earlier in the season. It's still really early for heirloom tomatoes, and they're going to be a lot better in a month. These are pretty good for right now, though." You can't expect to walk up to a random table at a farmer's market, pick up some tomatoes and end up with something amazing 100% of the time. This wasn't true in 1997 and it isn't true today.

Do you seriously disagree with my statement? If so I'll make a commitment to doing further research before making a stronger claim.

I'm sure Mitch and I could be pursuaded to meet you at 9:00 at the USGM on Saturday for a tomato-buying expedition. :smile:

As it so happens, I've brought the fixings for an heirloom tomato sandwich to have at lunch today -- the tomato slices in their own container so they don't spend the morning soaking into the bread. Delicious.

I've scanned back through the topic and I can't see any reading of it that supports the claim that I'm "in the distinct minority when you argue that the 'heirloom' designation was a guarantee of anything." For example, Sam has posted a couple of variants of the following:
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.

I should qualify that statement with two caveats:

1. "Delicious" in comparison to what else was available.

and

2. I can't discount the extent to which the novelty of the flavors and textures of heirloom tomatoes may have influenced perceptions as to quality when they were first introduced in NYC greenmarkets.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

--

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Sam, I believe the following statements you've made throughout this topic were correct when you made them and remain correct. The statements square exactly with my experience. I don't think you were imagining excellence on account of novelty, and I don't think the time frame was long enough for this to be a question of the product only being good relative to the surrounding produce -- we're not talking about the 1970s.

I have agreed that ten years ago the words "heirloom tomato" were almost always associated with high quality and that they are not so today
heirloom tomatoes used to be 100% awesome when you could find them 10 years ago and how they're not the virtual guarantee of quality anymore
The result is that an heirloom tomato is no longer the virtual guarantee of quality it used to be.

and

So, in those days, pretty much any time you got your hands on an heirloom tomato variety, it was going to be delicious.

With respect to the rest of your post, I promise I understand that it's still possible to get great heirloom tomatoes from the best growers at the Union Square Greenmarket. I'll repeat my points once more, and then I think I'll call it a day, since I don't think anybody has said anything new in a couple of pages: 1) the designation "heirloom tomato" used to be a strong indicator of quality, and now that same designation does pretty much nothing to ensure quality, 2) this is true at the general retail level, and even at the best farmer's markets and restaurants there is now plenty of mediocrity where before there was little (which is not to say that every specimen or vendor is mediocre -- just that they pretty much all used to be good and now they aren't all good); 3) this is a regrettable state of affairs, and is something people in general should be told about.

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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Look, I never disagreed that if you were to take a sample of every single heirloom tomato available for sale at retail or in restaurants today and compared that sample to a similar sample from 1997 there wouldn't be an observable drop in quality. In that, we have always been in agreement. We have mainly been in disagreement as to a) which factors are responsible for this phenomenon; and b) whether there is a meaningful decline in the quality of tomatoes available at the Union Square Greenmarket.

I think the decline in average, across-the-board heirloom tomato quality is attributable to the popularity commercialization of heirloom tomatoes that resulted in the same, or similar techniques being used to bring heirloom tomatoes into supermarkets that are used for commercial hybrids.

I also think that the quality (as well as variability due to weather, etc.) of heirloom tomatoes at the USGM is much the same as it has been in the past.

In addition, I never thought of "heirloom tomato" as a stong indicator of quality so much as I thought of it as a certain kind of tomato that, in the past, was only brought to market in NYC by the best local growers and now is being brought to an exponentially larger market by a wider variety of growers. This is something I've seen happen with any number of products. Ten years ago, the only game in town for guanciale was Salumeria Biellese's "pure funk" product. I guess you might say, "guanciale was a designation of quality" at that time. Now one can buy guanciale in NYC from any number of producers, and "the overall quality has gone down." But I never thought of "guanciale" as anything other than the name of the product I was buying, like "cucumber" or "baguette" or "steak." If there was any association of quality for me, it would be in saying "guanciale from Salumeria Biellese." I feel much the same way about heirloom tomatoes. Now, if my favorite guys at the USGM started selling crap heirloom tomatoes, then I'd be ringing the alarm bell. Thus far, it hasn't happened.

Really, I'm not even sure it's a "regrettable state of affairs." What's so regrettable about it? If anything, it's the case that there are more outstanding heirloom tomatoes available today than there were ten years ago. My USGM guys are certainly growing a lot more of them, and instead of growing 3-4 cultivars they're growing as many as a dozen different cultivars. Okay, you can find crap heirloom tomatoes at the same places you find crap commercial hybrid tomatoes. So what? There's no way they were going to turn out this many heirloom tomatoes with an average level of quality even approaching what the best greenmarket people are selling. It's simply not possible on that scale. What does that mean? That things were better back when they were growing 1/50th as many heirloom tomatoes as today, and the only people who could get them were the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and whomever showed up to stand on line at Union Square early enough on Saturday mornings to get a few before the growers ran out for the day?

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With respect to the rest of your post, I promise I understand that it's still possible to get great heirloom tomatoes from the best growers at the Union Square Greenmarket. I'll repeat my points once more, and then I think I'll call it a day, since I don't think anybody has said anything new in a couple of pages: 1) the designation "heirloom tomato" used to be a strong indicator of quality, and now that same designation does pretty much nothing to ensure quality, 2) this is true at the general retail level, and even at the best farmer's markets and restaurants there is now plenty of mediocrity where before there was little (which is not to say that every specimen or vendor is mediocre -- just that they pretty much all used to be good and now they aren't all good); 3) this is a regrettable state of affairs, and is something people in general should be told about.

Well, I'll give it a shot. Saying something new, that is.

Perhaps your perception of what "heirloom" means is consumer, end user driven. You would be correct from that perspective.

For people who have grown and loved heirloom tomatoes, who pick from their own garden, who grow varieties that they may not like because of type just to see if it is worth eating - the heirloom tomato market is better than ever.

There are literally thousands of examples of wonderful cultivars that less than a decade ago the seed were not available - or too expensive to fool with.

You pay for convenience. That's a fact.

If you take a strictly end user view of heirloom tomatoes - then they have been dumbed down. If you take a creative view of heirloom tomatoes - the world is bigger and more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.

Will pop some corn now. This is a really good topic, and the discussion is wonderful.

By the way, an incredibly butt ugly tomato can be the best tasting of the season. Cracks, malformations, bad spots that need to be cut out and all. Looking past the cosmetics would help many consumers enjoy a taste treat. That being said, you can't make a silk purse out of a sows ear - sometimes they look bad for a reason.

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On the visual inspection point, Mitch, do you select your tomatoes totally at random? Or do you believe that when you look at a group of tomatoes you can pick the better ones out of the group? Needless to say, false positives and false negatives are a fact of life when you select produce. But surely you agree that there are plenty of visual cues to help steer you one way or the other, and that they're worth something. Don't you sometimes see a vendor and walk on past because everything *looks* crummy?

OK - I'm gonna call it a day (in this topic, at least!) too :smile: ...

Of course I look at stuff before I buy it; and I can pick the better looking tomatoes, but that isn't going to tell me how they'll taste. Unless or until I taste them.

And I really don't see vendors at the USGM where everything looks crummy. I shop there at least twice a week.

1) the designation "heirloom tomato" used to be a strong indicator of quality, and now that same designation does pretty much nothing to ensure quality, 2) this is true at the general retail level, and even at the best farmer's markets and restaurants there is now plenty of mediocrity where before there was little (which is not to say that every specimen or vendor is mediocre -- just that they pretty much all used to be good and now they aren't all good); 3) this is a regrettable state of affairs, and is something people in general should be told about.

Are these really your final pronouncements about this?

As Sam said, tomatoes at 40 paces...Union Square Greenmarket - the earlier the better!

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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it occurs to me that this same discussion could have been had 5 years ago, substituting the word "organic" for "heirloom." these are valid labels that honestly describe certain characteristics of the products. it's just that they don't mean what many people understand them to mean.

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it occurs to me that this same discussion could have been had 5 years ago, substituting the word "organic" for "heirloom." these are valid labels that honestly describe certain characteristics of the products. it's just that they don't mean what many people understand them to mean.

Like "farm fresh eggs"...

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Viva,

Not that it matters,  and I am certainly not one to discriminate against a tomato for being an F1 hybrid [see my posts upthread]. Early Girl is an F1Hybrid and one heck of a performer under so many climates and such trying conditions over so many years.

g

It doesn't really matter to me either if a tomato is an F1 Hybrid or an "Heirloom"! Early Girls taste good. That's all I care about!! They're gone for the year already <sob>. But thanks for the information. That's why the heirloom designation bothers me... an Early Girl might not be described as heirloom, but that doesn't make me want to buy it any less.

"Heirloom" is just as crap of a descriptor as "organic" or "free range".

By the way, an incredibly butt ugly tomato can be the best tasting of the season. Cracks, malformations, bad spots that need to be cut out and all. Looking past the cosmetics would help many consumers enjoy a taste treat. That being said, you can't make a silk purse out of a sows ear - sometimes they look bad for a reason.

I love the "ugly tomato" bin that one of the farmers has at her market stand. Cheeeap... like $1 per pound. Makes it possible for me to buy more tomatoes. I know her tomatoes well enough now that I can pick the cultivars out that I am particularly fond of... :wub: I'll take a scarred Carbon over a pretty Trifele any day of the week.

...wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile. --Alexander Pope

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