Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Oh! Thou Gorgeous Tomato

I have yet to find odes to the tomato in your better-known classic world literature, but perhaps that was just an oversight by those who had never seen the selection of GORGEOUS heirloom offerings out there. Thanks to the internet, they are as close as a keyboard and nicely grouped to warm the winter-weary with visions of harvests-to-come.

My urge to find one or two packets of heirloom tomato seeds online, (imagining three or four hearty, prolific specimens laden with fruit), turned instead into an embarrasing spectacle of glorious seed-greed. My formerly-humble wish list is on steroids. Thank you, :) Were I to plant even one or two seedlings sprouted from each of the choices I put on my list (it's a longggg list), I'd have multiple long rows of tomato hedges so over-abundant that I'd be filling wheelbarrows of produce and schlepping it around to the neighbors. They'd be so replete with tomatoes that they'd see me coming, give a secret signal, and roll down their window shades and pretend they weren't home. Heh heh... ah well, one man's (or woman's) tomato pergatory is another man's heaven! (oh to be the neighbors!)

Well, I'll probably order one or two. (LIAR! screams my conscience...;-)) It's an affliction. Maybe others have it, too. The urge to stockpile THE most wonderful, unique seeds that promise adventure and mysteries to come. I've never grown heirloom seeds. Anything I've gotten has been either a hand-me-down starter or something from the local Home Depot. I have two solitary Roma tomato plants trussed up to stakes and soldiering on in a big pot in the backyard. I've been told one can grown tomatoes here in Florida clear through the winter, so that one pot is my experiment. So far, one of the vines has six fat green tomatoes going strong, and the other vine is full of blooms, so we'll see. But whatever the outcome of those, there is The Great Tomato Unknown that has yet to be explored. The tomatoes I've been seeing out there, the heirloom sort, come in all shapes and sizes and colorations and tastes.

I know...these have probably been around forever! But for one who grew up on red beefsteak tomatoes and was never exposed to anything else much except for the grocery store cherry tomatoes or Sweet Santas, this is a big discovery! Since I want to learn how to can, it sends visions of sauces, pastes, relishes, pickles, soups, etc dancing through my head. I want my daughter and husband to taste the differences between the sweet ones and the pungent ones, and to know the difference between low-acid and high-acid, and the nuance between "hearty, smoky flavor" and "mild hint of melon." Imagine what we've been missing out on! Were the average person to regularly be exposed to this feast of flavors, no child would refuse their vegetables again. They'd start boycotting Happy Meals.

So, in my bid to save the world's palate One Tomato At A Time, here is the INDISPENSABLE (ha! ;-)) list of seeds I presently am trying not to covet:

(Names and descriptions are as shown from the site. If not all of them are heirloom seeds, don't tell me... let me enjoy my little illusion a bit longer)

The Heirloom Tomato Seed List 2007
(comments as shown on the above-mentioned website)

Black Prince
Originally from Siberia, this is one of the most popular and favored black tomatoes. Originally introduced from Irkutsk, Russia and is regarded as a "true Siberian tomato" that does very well in cooler climates. Until only recently this was considered a rare variety in the United States. However, its popularity has grown so much in Russia that there is now a company in Volograd that is producing an extract of the Black Prince called "Black Prince Tomato Oil." The Black Prince tomato is said to have considerable health benefits beyond the presence of lycopene. These deep garnet round, 2-inch (2-3 oz.) tomatoes are full of juice and incredibly rich fruity flavors. This is a tomato that chefs I deliver to rave about for its rich flavors. The small fruits contain deep rich colors on the inside. Perfect for patio gardens. Perfect for eating fresh, and in cooking in tomato sauce or other culinary wonders. (My note: To see the picture of this one is to love's glowing like a round dark purple plum with a blush of ruby red...beautiful!)

Cherokee Chocolate
Craig LeHoullier stabilized this rogue heirloom originating from the popular old heirloom from Tennessee, Cherokee Purple. This 4-inch beefsteak variety has developed a great following among celebrity chefs because of its exceptionally rich tomato flavors and wonderful chocolate mahogany color. (My note: who can resist exceptionally rich flavor and chocolate mahogany?? It sounds like the library paneling in a grand old house)

Aunt Ginny's Purple
A productive beefsteak of German origin that yields 1-pound, deep-pink tomatoes that are smooth with little cracking and contain juicy flavors that some people claim are equal to the Brandywine. From Rick Burkhart, (Indianapolis,IN) whose family has raised it for 25 years. (My note: the 1 pound part interested me, as did the picture...and the curiosity about what exactly constitutes "juicy flavors")

Homestead 24
Great for hotter growing regions in the South since this variety sets fruit under even in hot weather. Big, leafy vines produce huge amounts of smooth, red, round fruits with good taste. Resistance to catfacing. (My note: key here was the mention of hot growing region, big vines and overall abundant crop of good hearty tomatoes)

From tomato collector Charlotte Mullens of West Virginia. Large flattish yellow and orange flesh with some red marbling. A bi-colored beefsteak with great flavor and unusually strong flavors for a bi-colored (My note: I've never tasted any tomato that wasn't red. The colors of this one fascinated me, and the mention of unusually strong flavors...I don't prefer a mild tomato, or at least I don't think I do. At the present it reminds me too much of the flavorless hothouse tomatoes that are bland bland bland, but maybe I'm unenlightened as yet)

Charlie's Green
Large, 1-pound, green beefsteak with yellow hues when ripe. Every bit as splendid in taste as Aunt Ruby's German Green and found it to be slightly more prolific in production of fruit. (My note: Again, the 1 pound fruit. Also the yellow...I want a variety of color. "Splendid" taste and prolific production hooked me.)

Wolford's Wonder
Seeds from this variety came from a Big Tomato contest winner grown by Max Wolford. Produces large, firm, heart-shaped, 4 x 5-inch fruits that have thick, pink-red skins, but few seeds. Exceptionally juicy and very tasty. I can sum it up with, WOW!!! (My note: There were soo many tomatoes to choose from, I nearly passed this one over. But this one was pink-skinned, and the words "exceptionally juicy and tasty" caught my eye. And who can resist a "WOW!!!"?)

Homer Fike's Yellow Oxheart
Seeds set to me by Karen Teets of West Virginia who told me, " this variety was grown by Mr. Homer Fike for as long as his 78-year old daughter can remember. Beyond that, no one is alive to remember." The abundant amount of distinctively beautiful, yellow-gold, heart-shaped, fruit up to 1 lb. has been one of the greatest tomato pleasures for me. Truly a wonderful gift to place in the hands of a loved one or friend. Guaranteed to get a "WOW!" in response. Meaty flesh, few seeds and delicious fruit-sweet flavors. (My note: I'd have bought this one if for no other reason than it was named after Homer Fike. I'd buy a Homer Fike anything with a name like that. Any tomato named Homer Fike is going to get eaten at my house. The fact that it's described as distinctively beautiful and yellow-gold and a tomato pleasure was just icing on the cake. I'll be getting this one even if I don't get some of the others. Yes, I'm a sucker for a West Virginny name ;-))

Dr. Wyche's Yellow
Named after Dr. Wyche who supposedly lived in the mountains and fertilized his garden with manure from a nearby zoo. Undoubtedly one of the best tasting yellow tomatoes to be found. A beefsteak heirloom that produces slightly flattened, smooth, blemish-free, golden-yellow fruit with a meaty interior and few seeds. It's rich flavor and larger size sets this variety apart from other yellow heirlooms. (My note: Nice description, though "Dr. Wyche" was not bestowed as unique a name as "Homer Fike." But clearly this tomato has its virtues, and is a yellow.)

Lemony (aka Limmony)
From Craig Lehoullier who got seeds from Aaron Whealy. Limmony is one of the first Russian varieties popularized in the US. An abundant Russian heirloom. Produces 1-16 oz., 4-5", light-yellow beefsteak. Unlike most yellows this one is loaded with lots of luscious, big sweet tangy flavors. It's been one of my favorite yellows to grow for market. (My note: Yellow, and big sweet tangy hooked me. And the name reminds me of the children's book writer of the Series of Unfortunate Events series, which is a hoot! I know, I'm warped)

Costoluto Genovese
Italian, heat-loving, heirloom tomato that has been enjoyed for many generations along the Mediterranean. Large, deep-red fruits have a singularly fluted profile, are deeply ridged, and heavily lobed. Meaty, full-flavored, slightly tart, and delicious. Because of its scalloped edges, perfect for use in an arrangement of different colored sliced tomatoes. Makes a rich and pungent pasta sauce. (My note: Kudos for heat-loving, deeply-ridged, and heavily lobed. And the description of flavor. Beauty for the eye and robustness for the palate...yeah!)

Mortgage Lifter, Radiator Charlie’s
Developed by M.C. Byles in the 1930’s, this tomato remains very much in demand in the Mid-Atlantic states. Mr. Byles, affectionately known as "Radiator Charlie" earned his nickname from the radiator repair business he opened at the foot of a steep hill on which trucks would often overheat. Radiator Charlie, who had no formal education or plant breeding experience, created this legendary tomato by cross-breeding four of the largest tomatoes he was able to find and developed a stable variety after six years of pollination and selection. He then sold his tomato plants for one dollar each (in the 1940’s) and paid off the six thousand dollar mortgage on his house in six years. It is said that each spring, gardeners drove as far as 200 miles to buy Charlie’s seedling tomatoes. The large, slightly flattened, pink-red fruits that range from 1 pound to more than 3 pounds, are meaty, very flavorful and have few seeds. (My note: This is the other one that I'll be for sure getting, along with the Homer Fike one, even if I don't get anything else. The description and history won me over! With 1-3 lb fruits that folks would drive to get seedlings of, how could I possibly pass this up? I'd have to sell a lot of that to lift MY mortgage, though!)

O.K., it was hard narrowing the selection down to even THIS list. But I have no regrets. If it's the simpler things, like the serendipity of discovering the true range of diversity in something so basic as a tomato, think of what worlds await in so many other areas of the garden...or barnyard...or woodlot...or backyard?

If I order any of these, which I plan to, I'll keep notes here on their progress. And hopefully some pictures, down the line!

More later...:) Happy seed cataloguing!

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