Well, you'd better look again. Heirloom tomatoes, which not so long ago were available only to food cultists, now can be bought in your local high-end grocery.
FOR THE RECORD: Nutritional information —The sodium content for many of the recipes in Wednesday's Food section was incorrectly stated in grams, not milligrams. The correct sodium contents for the recipes are: eggplant stuffed with piquillos and manchego, 600 mg.; golden tomato soup with fennel, 274 mg.; heirloom tomato tart, 311 mg.; spinach-stuffed sunburst squash, 256 mg.; stuffed Provencal tomatoes, 384 mg.; tomato salad with pickled shallots, 424 mg.
The speed with which these tomatoes have gone from gardening fringe to supermarket mainstream is startling. But while hard-core tomato fans are glad to see these old varieties finding new popularity, many question whether something vital is being lost in translation. Is an old tomato variety that's grown, picked and packed by modern commercial standards really worth celebrating?
You'll probably recognize heirloom tomatoes first by their imperfections. They are plainly and outspokenly old-fashioned. They tend to have unusual shapes and odd colors. They wear their wrinkles and blemishes as signs of character. Amid the perfect uniformity of the modern produce section, they stick out like the Queen Mum at a fashion shoot.
But their appeal is undeniable — and profitable. While most tomatoes are selling for less than $2 a pound, the heirlooms are going for as much as $6. Even at those prices, there is no shortage of buyers. At Whole Foods markets, heirloom tomatoes are summer's No. 1-selling produce item in terms of dollars spent, says Mark Wilson, the chain's Southern Pacific region produce coordinator.
The chain began selling them seven or eight years ago, but only in the last couple of summers have they really caught on. "Compared to three years ago, we're probably at least double the sales," Wilson said. "We're trying to get them into people's mouths and into their carts. We do tastings all the time and we encourage team members to sample them out. If anyone has questions, we want them to whip out their knife and give them a taste."
The same is true at Bristol Farms, says produce manager Raul Gallegos. "In the last five years, our sales have probably quadrupled. Last year was huge for us."
Most of these heirloom tomatoes are varieties that were handed down through families and friends. Someone would grow a great tomato, and a neighbor would want seeds. Because these were mostly backyard fruit, the only criterion for quality was taste, not disease resistance or ship-ability.
These tomatoes are open-pollinated, as opposed to hybrid, so their seeds will grow plants that are the same variety as the parents. Though there is no formal definition of "heirloom," it usually means the variety has been around for at least three generations (there are exceptions: the popular Green Zebra was developed only in 1985 by Bakersfield's Tom Wagner).
Seed exchange created
In the 1970s, a few hardy collectors began working to preserve the seeds of these old tomatoes and other vegetables. Then an Iowa couple, Barbara and Kent Whealey, founded Seed Savers Exchange to serve as a kind of clearinghouse.
It was as part of Seed Savers that Craig LeHoullier, a North Carolina-based pharmaceutical chemist, "discovered" the Cherokee Purple. "I got a letter from a guy named J.D. Green in Sevierville, Tenn., who said, 'I hear you like tomatoes. Maybe you'll be interested in this purple one the Cherokee Indians gave my neighbors 100 years ago.'
"I thought it would be another pink tomato like the Brandywine — pink was the fashionable color for tomatoes at the turn of the century. But I grew it, and it turned out to be this absolutely delicious purple tomato. It just needed a name, so I gave it the obvious one."
The 1980s "gourmet gardening" movement gave heirlooms a big push. Through catalogs such as Renee's Garden, you could grow the same varieties served at Chez Panisse. Then came farmers markets. Finally, more chefs got on board and introduced them to diners in restaurants. Josie LeBalch serves tomatoes from her own garden at her Santa Monica restaurant, Josie.
There are thousands of types of heirloom tomatoes available today (Seed Savers lists more than 5,000), but there are only a couple dozen commercially important ones. Most stores will stock five or six types, using the diversity of colors and shapes as a marketing hook.
That same diversity is reflected in taste and texture. The Brandywine, for example, is treasured for its deep, pure tomato flavor, while the Green Zebra is nearly lemony. Some, such as Hillbilly or Pineapple, are almost sweet, while others, such as Black Zebra or Lime Green Salad, are extremely tart.
Though these tomatoes all have qualities to recommend them, they also have significant drawbacks, which is why they fell by the wayside. They are prone to harmless but distracting cosmetic blemishes. More seriously, almost all heirlooms have much thinner skins than modern commercial varieties. This skin is easily punctured, leading to rapid spoilage.