No Comment — August 22, 2007, 12:50 am

The Pursuit of Heirloom Tomatoes

“That was well said, remarked Candide, but we must cultivate our garden.” That’s the most famous line from Voltaire’s best-known book. And Candide is, of course, filled with gardens, from that farm filled with dunces in Westphalia to the Turkish garden, to Candide’s modest one at the end. And what does it mean? Is Voltaire giving us some keys to the meaning of life, or is he advocating the virtues of a farm? Well, let’s not be so quick to dismiss gardening as something quite literal.

What gives more pleasure in the spring and summer than tending to a garden, and ultimately what is better than gardening vegetables? It’s an act of rejection of modernity and corporate agriculture, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just about the pleasure of good tomatoes. For decades, agribusiness in the United States has worked to perfect the tomato for commercial purposes. It should be bright red, perfectly round and resistant to insects, worms and bruises. And, predictably, it tastes more or less like a bowl of sand.

Recently I sat in a Washington bar with my friend Lanny, a Republican campaign genius, who was telling me about some of the fondest memories of his childhood in North Carolina. He talked of pulling tomatoes still warm from the vine, slicing them open and devouring them stuffed into a hot biscuit. “Tomatoes,” he remarked, “just don’t taste like that anymore.”

This certainly is a point for bipartisan consensus. What we desperately need are those wonderful tomatoes of yesteryear. And there’s only one solution: raise them yourself. What can enliven a cold February morning than the thought of summer tomatoes. February is time to start the seeds. A nice variety. I’d say shoot for a bed with a dozen plants, more or less. Here are my picks:

Arkansas Traveler – middle sized, red, a bit acid. These are your traditional southeastern U.S. tomatoes from the period right after World War II. Probably what Lanny remembers. Delicious. Far better than anything in your supermarket.

Brandywines – pink colored, irregular shaped, the Brandywine is a true gourmet’s tomato. It has a wonderfully rich tomato taste, but it’s definitely sweeter than most of the modern varietals. The perfect tomato to chop up with some herbs, a pinch of salt, a dash of lemon juice and olive oil and spread on bread, Tuscan style (bruschetta).

Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom – your garden must have at least one solid bright yellow tomato, and this may be the best. The Lillians are big, irregular but oval tomatoes with few seeds. The flavor is wonderful, and I frequently serve them up in dishes mixed with other vegetables, and few people recognize them as tomatoes at all. They’re sweet and have little acid. Great paired with artichokes, I find.

Crimean Black – I used to buy these in the market in Russia and eat them sliced thin with just a pinch of salt. They’re indigenous to south Russia and Ukraine and have a rich though peculiar flavor, something like a beefstake, but less acidic. In my book, the best basil, mozzarella and tomato salads are made with the Crimean Black.

Cherokee Black – Rounder, more acid and generally not quite as good as the Crimean Black, but a not-bad alternative if you can’t get the Slavic originals.

Caspian Pinks – these are butt-ugly pink skinned tomatoes that can be found all along the Caspian littoral and into Central Asia. They’re a perfect demonstration of my rule: the ugliest tomatoes always taste the best. Again these are fairly mild in taste, a bit less acid than a Roma, for instance, but perfect in a salad. Also very grand as provençale tomatoes: remove the core, add some fresh pesto and bread crumbs, and simmer in a pan with water for a half hour or more. The concentration of the flavors is wild.

Green Zebra – looks like a tomato with a watermelon rind skin, it has an amazing color, a firm texture and a somewhat puckering taste. This is a tomato to blend in a salad with others, adding variety, color and a touch of the exotic. Other tomatoes will taste sweeter with some Green Zebra added in.

Roma – what can top your basic Italian all-purpose cooking tomato. They’re not hybrids, but no matter.

Grape Tomatoes – I strongly advise a couple of plants with mini-tomatoes, both red and yellow. They can be munched as snacks and are very easy to use in many ways. And they have another big advantage: the grape and cherry tomatoes produce fruit very early—sometimes a full month ahead of the balance of the crop.

There really isn’t that much too it. Prepare the beds with some good garden soil and put the plants out when danger of the last frost is past. Leave plenty of space between the plants. I am a big believer in tomato cages – buy a dozen of them, and then you can forget staking. Insecticides? I say don’t bother. True sometimes the bugs get some of your fruit, but I haven’t had much of a problem with that. Do plant some marigolds underneath by the way, it does make a difference in controlling the bugs.

And in addition to enjoying the product and sharing them with your friends, there are some other benefits. Raising tomatoes helps you understand the cycle of agricultural life—the worries about rain, pests, soil quality and threats like animals and hail. It’s good in this suburban consumer culture to have a fleeting connection with the things that sat on the minds of our ancestors for tens of thousands of years.

What have I accomplished this summer? On many fronts, I’m not sure, but those tomatoes are coming in now, and they’re terrific. I am filled with an instant sense of accomplishment.

Cultivating the garden is more than a pastime, after all, it’s an ethical injunction. No summer is quite right without it.

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