Heirloom tomatoes' bizarre evolution: The secret history of the tastiest summer treat

They've been around forever, but seemed to arrive overnight. Here's how it all happened

Published June 14, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

Heirloom Tomatoes      (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-368203p1.html'>keren-seg</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
Heirloom Tomatoes (keren-seg via Shutterstock)

Excerpted from "Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods"

Walking through Chicago’s Green City farmers’ market in the heat of August, it’s hard to overlook the abundance of heirloom tomatoes, in colors ranging from near black to pink or green, filling plastic bins and laid out on tables. Some are small as marbles, others large and lobed, almost like bell peppers. Their skins are often fragile, prone to splitting and poorly suited to lengthy journeys in refrigerated trucks.

Depending on the point in the growing season, prices can be high, but they come down as the summer wears on and the tomatoes ripen. Other produce on sale—peaches, berries, corn, squash, potatoes, and some of the first apples of the season—cries out for attention as well. This is a moment that cannot occur at any other time of the year. No amount of greenhouse growing or refrigerated trucking can summon the array of flavors offered here. But the tomatoes are especially precious, and I can’t resist the Black Krims or the enormous red-and-yellow Hillbillys.

The whole range of “paste” tomatoes is not necessarily ideal in a summer salad, but they are well suited to cooking down into sauces and pastes, as the name suggests. The enormous Brandywines can be sliced in thick slabs, a meal in themselves. The traveler’s tomato, or Reisetomate, is so deeply lobed that you can break the lobes off individually and carry the rest of the tomato in your pocket for later.

For old fans and new converts alike, heirloom tomatoes can be a revelation, a delightful encounter with marvelous flavor and with a striking array of shapes, sizes, colors, and uses. For some people heirloom tomatoes are a symbol of wealth and taste. For others they are a way to carry on a family tradition, flavors loved by past generations. The actual flavors vary widely, but the fans of such tomatoes hail them for actually tasting like tomatoes, in contrast to the perceived blandness of the mass-produced hybrids bred to resemble projectiles, designed for the big rig transport system and the supermarket produce section. Indeed, university labs were instructed to imagine the tomato as a projectile in their efforts to develop hybrids that could withstand long journeys and extended refrigeration.

Once upon a time what we call heirloom tomatoes were simply tomatoes. This chapter seeks to understand how a tomato becomes an heirloom, as well as the consequences of this transformation. The heirloom tomato has shifted from being a food produced and eaten in an entirely private way (in gardens, at home) to a food also bought and eaten in very public ways by more affluent consumers, at restaurants in particular, but also at farmers’ markets and high-end grocery stores.

The tomato supply hasn’t always been like this, with heirloom varieties for sale at most farmers’ markets and even in many supermarkets. For decades it was nearly impossible to buy an heirloom tomato, and in many places it still is. In my local supermarket, on a good day, I can choose from five or six varieties of hybrid tomatoes, and I spent most of my life completely unaware that I was missing out on thousands of other varieties. Not long ago I would have had to work a lot harder to put an heirloom tomato on my plate. I would have had to grow it myself, or seek out one of a handful of cutting-edge restaurants serving up local and seasonal food, or befriend a gifted home gardener. And even if I were ready to grow them myself—if I had a little earth, a little time, a little gardening skill—I still would have had to search far and wide just to track down the seeds.

Today I can order hundreds of varieties from dozens of websites, page through stacks of catalogs, visit heirloom vegetable fairs, and even buy heirloom tomato seedlings at a local nursery. I can then save my own tomato seeds. Gardeners, shoppers, diners, and chefs clamor for heirloom tomatoes, in urban allotments and Michelin-starred restaurants, on back porches and at upscale grocery stores. Even Martha Stewart jumped on (and helped propel) the heirloom bandwagon, with the heritage turkeys she has taken to serving for Thanksgiving and her magazine covers overflowing with multicolored ripe heirloom tomatoes. The past decade has seen a notable increase in the popularity of heirloom tomatoes in the United States. They have made their way not only into backyard gardens, but also into grocery stores, restaurant kitchens, cookbooks, and the pages of popular newspapers and magazines as well as the fields of organic and conventional small farmers (and, increasingly, agribusiness farms). Tomatoes first piqued my interest in the late 2000s in part because by that time they had become ubiquitous— but it took a lot of work to get them to that point.

In his memoir about becoming an accidental tomato farmer, Tim Stark describes in great detail the sheer physical effort required to get his rainbow of heirloom tomatoes to the New York Greenmarket and into Manhattan restaurant kitchens every week. He recounts the struggle to prepare the fields, getting thousands of fragile seedlings into the ground, fighting off deer and other hungry mammals (not to mention hungry invertebrates like aphids, cabbage looper, Colorado potato beetle, fall army worm, corn earworm, leaf miners, thrips, and tomato pinworm that plague many growers of tomatoes), the endless weeding, the rush to pick the tomatoes as they suddenly begin to ripen.

And once the tomatoes are picked, new problems appear: loading inadequate delivery trucks, fighting city traffic and unsympathetic parking regulations, muscling boxes of tender tomatoes down the narrow stairwells of Manhattan’s restaurant basements. And all this was taking place because of the voracious appetite for heirloom tomatoes that had developed among New Yorkers who could afford these markets and restaurants. But similar tomatoes were growing nearby in the thriving community gardens of Alphabet City and other neighborhoods across New York City and farther afield. Even as heirloom tomatoes rocketed to fame and became status symbols in some settings, not only did they continue to be grown by people who could never afford them either at the Greenmarket or in restaurants, they became more accessible to a wider range of people.

Stark’s stories of getting his tomatoes to market reminded me of the opening of French novelist Émile Zola’s tale of market life in nineteenth-century Paris in The Belly of Paris: a resolute vegetable seller guiding her rickety horse-drawn wagon full of just-picked vegetables the long twelve kilometers from Nanterre to Les Halles, the then brand-new market hall of soaring iron and glass, today vanished and replaced by a massive and largely underground shopping mall. Madame François, the ruddy-cheeked vegetable seller, struggled with many of the same issues Stark faces: the race to get highly perishable produce to market before it disintegrates into compost, the relentless routine of waking in the middle of the night to make it to the market in time, the physical work of unloading the wagon or van box by box, basket by basket, the hours of back-and-forth with customers in search of impossible deals or just looking for someone to talk to, the countryside feeding the cavernous appetites of the city—all so similar in twenty-first-century New York and nineteenth-century Paris.

Even when I visited his stand at Union Square, Stark was knee deep in tomatoes, hoisting cartons out of the back of his truck. Union Square, early on a Saturday, was also full of people in chefs’ whites pushing or dragging carts of produce back to nearby trucks (or nearby restaurants). I walked through the market with two good friends and their two splendid Labradors, Jack and Diane, who get star treatment and are offered cheese and organic dog treats. On that same trip to New York, every heirloom tomato I ate in a restaurant was underwhelming and overpriced, the result of the hollowing out of the heirloom label into a fad—something I’ll discuss later in this chapter. Only when we conjured up our own tomato brunch with a rainbow of Stark’s tomatoes did I finally have a satisfying mouthful. At the same time, back home in the Midwest, my green-thumbed friends and neighbors were drowning in the riches of their delicious tomato crops at that glorious moment in high summer when everything seems to ripen before your eyes, when you can almost hear your garden growing in the brilliant sunlight.

That single adjective, “heirloom,” marks the rupture of the mid-twentieth century, when a historically unprecedented change in the quality and scale of agricultural production in the United States changed the ways that many of us produce and consume food. Beginning in the 1990s, tomatoes went from being the work of unknown green thumbs in out-of-the-way places to being essential ingredients on the summer menu of any self-respecting expensive restaurant and to the well-set picnic tables and benefit galas of elites across the country. They came to be in such demand that it is worthwhile for Tim Stark and so many others to haul their delicate produce into the metaphorical belly of the city.

Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, heirloom tomatoes moved from backyards, kitchen tables, and the barns and garden sheds of a few seed-saving projects to farmers’ markets, commercial nurseries, school gardens, urban farms, and upscale restaurants. Soon they appeared in the culinary discourse of restaurant reviews and cookbooks as well.

So how did they get here? How can there now be dozens, even hundreds of tomato varieties to choose from in the middle of Chicago? As Sunset Magazine once asked, “Where have they been all our lives?” The heirloom tomato made a quantum leap out of the backyards of tomato fanatics and solitary seed savers and into the pages of the New York Times and beyond. The continuum that is edible memory played a role in this resurgence. At one end are people with their personal edible memories of cherished family heirloom tomatoes (and other fruits and vegetables) whose seeds, grafts, and tubers were handed down from one generation to the next, fed to hungry toddlers and family elders alike. At the other end of the continuum are newcomers who seek out heirloom tomatoes as part of a broader pursuit of local, seasonal, or novel cuisine.

Yesterday’s Tomatoes

The origins of the tomato lie somewhere in the Andes, in a wild plant with tiny berries that no one seemed to have been especially interested in eating. Tomatoes were later cultivated and eaten in Central America, and they were well known to the Aztecs, though reportedly less beloved than tomatillos.As they did with so many other foods (turkeys, potatoes, squash, corn, etc.), the first European explorers and conquistadors returned to Europe with tomatoes (or tomato seeds) in the holds of their ships. Tomatoes (and turkeys and other New World plants and animals) touched European soil in the early years of the New World conquerors, taking root here and there. But many of these foods also appear to have found their way to European popularity by a different route—from Portuguese explorers and traders through India and into Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, coming from the east rather than the west. The tomato, not unlike the potato, crept rather slowly across the European continent and into European cuisine, not really taking off in many places until the nineteenth century, when it went from being a largely ornamental and medicinal plant to being a fundamental component of much of world cuisine.

In his wonderful book The Tomato in America, Andrew Smith dates the first European mention of tomatoes to 1544, but it took more than two hundred years for the tomato to become a regular part of European cooking and to break from its image of being either poisonous or purely medicinal. Many people found the smell of its foliage unpleasant, although for many of us today this pungent aroma is a harbinger of summer.

This is a stunning change—showing how a food’s image and popularity can be so radically and fundamentally altered, from poison to the intensely familiar flavor and colors of regional European cooking, the taste of home and childhood. The transformation of apples into something American, and of tomatoes into something Italian, is a long process.

The story of the tomato’s movement, not only from its wild origins in South America to its cultivated form in Central America, but also from Central America to all corners of the globe, is still something of a mystery to many researchers. The Cambridge World History of Food asserts that “the sudden introduction of several American foods had left Europeans a bit confused about where all of these new items were coming from. As a rule, new foods had arrived from across the Mediterranean with the Moors.” Multiple sources pinpoint the likely place of arrival of the tomato in Europe as Seville, “the only port for Spanish ships returning from the New World.” References to tomatoes do appear here and there in Italian and Dutch herbalists’ accounts and other sources in the early sixteenth century, and they are more frequently described thereafter, also appearing in the occasional cookbook and painting, like Murillo’s The Angels’ Kitchen in 1646. The tomato made faster headway in Spain and Italy than elsewhere, although it still did not achieve its status as a staple in Italy until the nineteenth century. There are accounts of tomatoes being planted in Britain starting in the sixteenth century, although often as botanical curiosities. Italian gardeners also bred tomatoes that grew larger, smoother, and more thick-skinned.

By the eighteenth century, tomatoes had found their way into British soups, but it took until the early nineteenth century for them to appear more widely in French recipes, and they still met with much suspicion in Britain and France alike. In India, the Bengali name for tomato is biliti begun, meaning “English [or foreign] aubergine [eggplant],” indicating a colonial-era introduction of the tomato into Indian cooking by the British. Tomatoes came to Africa via some combination of “invaders, explorers, missionaries, and traders” and were found throughout the continent by the late nineteenth century.As Alan Davidson, the erudite food enthusiast behind The Oxford Companion to Food, proclaims,

“For a foodstuff which has come up to the front from almost nowhere in under two centuries, the tomato has proved to have astonishingly vigorous penetrative qualities, so that it is as close to being ubiquitous in the kitchens of the world as any plant food.” Spanish colonists brought tomatoes to Florida and the Southwest, and English colonists brought them to South and North Carolina as early as the eighteenth century. In the 1820s (at a time when the United States was pretty much the East Coast), the tomato began to take hold in cooking here, creeping into cookbooks and onto greengrocers’ shelves and being planted in gardens. Smith explains that part of the impetus behind the increasing popularity of the tomato in the early nineteenth century came from farm periodicals and agricultural and horticultural societies, leading to more widespread cultivation in the 1830s and 1840s.  The rising acceptance of tomatoes is also visible in their increasing frequency in cookbooks and on restaurant menus.

Canning too became popular around the country, and tomatoes lent themselves especially well to being preserved this way. Housekeeping manuals and cookbooks taught housewives how to incorporate tomatoes into their families’ meals, and fresh (and, later, commercially canned) tomatoes became more widely available. Italian immigrants are also credited with increasing the popularity and availability of tomatoes in the Northeast in the late nineteenth century, as well as the burgeoning supply of canned tomatoes imported from Italy to the United States.

The nineteenth century was also a time of widespread interest in breeding fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, in both Europe and the United States. Breeders like Alexander W. Livingston sought the perfect combination of uniformity, productivity, and attractiveness, creating tomatoes like Acme and Favorite. Much of what we today label “heirloom” was developed during this era. The pasts reached for by the consumers of heirloom tomatoes today are often relatively new, generally from the nineteenth century, a particular moment in the history of breeding domesticated plants and animals. That is, a large number of the foods now in vogue as heirlooms—in restaurant reviews and food writing—were not even bred until the mid-nineteenth century. So the memory bound up in heirloom foods in the United States is in part from a relatively limited and recent period.

Across Germany, France, the Netherlands, England, and the United States (among other places), biologists and botanists, but also gentleman farmers and hobby breeders, engaged in the widespread categorizing and supposed perfecting of everything from gooseberries to cattle, and this certainly included tomatoes. For example, breed books still used today were established for livestock, and competitive breeding of all sorts led to fairs and competitions. In the nineteenth century, fruit and vegetable breeding moved beyond the glasshouses and potager gardens of the aristocracy and into the nurseries, backyards, and allotment gardens of the middle and working classes. Gooseberry societies, for example, spread across England, bringing together across class lines people (mostly men) obsessed with growing the biggest possible gooseberry. Similarly, pigeon breeding became a competitive passion in imperial Vienna, and indeed throughout Europe. This was part of a broader European mania for collecting and categorizing the plant and animal kingdoms.

Tomatoes, too, become the object of serious dedication from hobby breeders and market farmers, and local production and distribution continued for decades (at least of fresh tomatoes—canned tomatoes could obviously be transported far greater distances). Markets for tomatoes did grow, and more gardeners planted them, but without refrigerated distribution or large-scale industrial farming, most fresh tomato production and consumption was still local, seasonal, and relatively heterogeneous. Most of the tomato varieties available before the Civil War have long since disappeared, although a few have been preserved at places like the Oliver Kelley Farm in Minnesota, while other living history museums and seed saver groups offer seeds from later in the nineteenth century.

Tomatoes like Black Prince or Black from Tula, which could thrive in northern latitudes with long summer days and short growing seasons, appeared in Russia and neighboring countries. Meanwhile farmers and gardeners in the American Midwest went in search of record-breaking varieties meant to tip the scales competitively at county fairs. Some of these varieties remain, but others have disappeared. It is difficult to calculate how much agricultural biodiversity has been lost, in part because of similarities between varieties, in part because of name changes and because few systematic records have been kept.

In the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, agriculture turned away from a wider array of crops based on open pollination toward a narrower range of hybrid crops, in conjunction with a substantial increase in the scale of farming, the widespread application of synthetic fertilizers, and the growth of agribusiness. The case of corn is just one illustration of this rapid change. Partly in response to Stewart’s bacterial wilt, according to Janisse Ray, “in 1935, less than 10 percent of Iowa corn was hybrid. Four years later, 90 percent of it was—specifically Golden Cross Bantam [resistant to this wilt]. . . . Trusting the advertisements, not knowing long-term consequences, not understanding the loss, and wanting to survive, farmers stuck canisters of homegrown seed-corn on back shelves and went to town for Golden Cross Bantam.” Those forgotten canisters of corn contained open-pollinated seeds rather than hybrids. Open pollination means that a grower can save the seeds from one season’s plants, plant them, and have them breed true in the next growing season. Hybrids involve the intentional (and often commercial) crossing of two distinct varieties in order to select for particular qualities. It is possible to stabilize a hybrid over seven generations or so, and natural hybridization regularly takes place. Ray notes that “folk growers have been producing happenchance hybrids for centuries, hence all the agricultural diversity to start with.” Hybrids often have what is called “hybrid vigor,” particular levels of disease resistance or high yields, but they frequently are not fertile—that is, generally their seeds will not germinate, so that anyone growing hybrids needs to buy new seeds each year rather than saving seeds themselves from one year to the next. If the hybrid seeds are fertile, they can produce an unpredictable result, drawn from the genes of their significantly different parent plants. Thus people wanting to save seeds need to plant open-pollinated seeds rather than hybrids, and then they need to pay attention to the particular reproductive habits of the plant in question so as to keep unwanted pollen from fertilizing the desired plant (via a gust of wind or insect visitors) and thus creating an unintended hybrid.

Another issue with hybrids is plant breeders’ rights. Not only is it generally impossible to carry hybrids on to the next generation in a satisfactory way, but in many cases the rights to a hybrid are owned by the person or corporation that developed (and registered) the particular variety. A further step is creating genetically modified organisms (GMO), a different process entirely where genes from unrelated organisms (such as bacteria) are spliced into the DNA of other organisms such as corn. In 2013, 90 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans planted in the United States was genetically engineered. Like hybrids, these are proprietary—owned by the person or company that developed and registered or patented them. But they are quite different, and utterly new in human and natural history, in bringing together genes that would never meet in nature (given the difficulty of bacteria breeding with corn, for starters). Two of the most common genetic modifications are corn modified to contain a bacillus that resists pest infestations, and an herbicide tolerance that allows glyphosate to be sprayed on fields, killing weeds without killing the corn plants. Today most corn—along with most canola, soy, papaya, and sugar beets—is genetically modified. There are no genetically engineered tomatoes on the market today—the Flavr Savr tomato was launched in 1994 but taken off the market in 1997.

The industrialization of agriculture that has led to more reliance on hybrids and genetically modified crops also led to a decrease in the overall number of tomato varieties available to consumers through standard commercial channels and to breeding for qualities sought by grocery customers. Standing in the produce sections of the nation’s grocery stores, shoppers sought (and still generally seek) a uniform red color, spherical shape, smooth skin, and perhaps most important, a tomato that was intact—so transporting the produce without much damage became essential. This kind of durability also allowed consumers access to produce even when it was not in season locally. They became available out of season and non-locally, shipped from the temperate climates of Mexico or California and from Dutch hothouses. The tomato varieties available in the grocery store represent only a tiny portion of the thousands of tomato varieties that still exist. When people walk into grocery stores in more affluent parts of the world, they invariably face a contradiction—an unprecedented variety of products to buy, from acorn squash to eggplants to mangoes, and a diminishing diversity in their genetic makeup.

In 2011, there were 373,500 acres of tomatoes planted in the United States (100,400 fresh and 273,100 for processing into tomato paste, etc.). The same year per capita consumption of tomatoes was more than eighty-five pounds. More than nine thousand of those acres of tomato production were organic, a little over 2.5 percent of the total production. Today in the United States approximately 12 million tons of tomatoes are eaten each year, and between 25 and 40 million Americans grow their own tomatoes. The reduction in the varieties of a given food grown commercially (accompanied by the increased predictability of the market and quality, as well as often lower prices but loss of flavor) affected far more than tomatoes—everything from apples and corn to chickens and pigs.

Excerpted from "Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods" by Jennifer A. Jordan. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2015 by The University of Chicago. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 

By Jennifer A. Jordan

Jennifer A. Jordan is associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is also the author of "Structures of Memory: Understanding Urban Change in Berlin and Beyond"

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