Tomato Crush: Move Over Grainger County—Knoxvillians Are Being Swept Away By the Joy of Heirloom Tomatoes

2012: My Summer of Love.

I fell for heirloom tomatoes, and I fell hard.

It was so easy—they were so beautiful, so tasty. And it seemed they were everywhere, these fruits from open-pollinated, non-hybrid plants, grown from seeds that have been preserved and handed down from generation to generation, or handed over from neighbor to neighbor, country to country, one die-hard seed saver to another. They had names like Green Zebra and Orange Oxheart and June Pink, thin, bulging skins, deep flavors.

I was first captivated by the plants at "my" Stanley's Greenhouse in South Knoxville, where just the year before they'd established the best heirlooms for local conditions, and were offering neatly labeled Brandywines and June Pinks and the chief of all regional heirlooms, the deeply flavorful, outsized and lavishly colored Cherokee Purple.

But I was soon seeing heirlooms everywhere: revealing slices of firm yellow and red slabs advertising giants at the farmers' market; red and orange varieties in the Caprese salad at Oodles on Market Square; bins at Earth Fare and Three Rivers Market; tiny immature orbs on White Wonder vines at CAC/Beardsley Community Farm—and prettily arranged slices being served by chef Holly Hambright in all their green, yellow, purple, and red heirloom glory to the grateful Olympic swimming team (who were practicing in Knoxville).

It was a summer of unabated tomato love—eating, growing, and endlessly discussing.

Which brings us to 2013. Also known as my Summer of More Mature Love. Because this year's rainfall of Biblical proportions has made all tomatoes, and particularly the heirlooms, more difficult to grow, harder to find.

"It has been a great year for disease," notes Annette Wszelaki, who co-coordinates the design and implementation of research projects at the University of Tennessee's Organic Crops Unit in Knoxville. That outfit has been growing heirlooms since 2008 and started selling them at the UT Farmer's Market in 2010. She also helps local producers market heirlooms and other organic produce.

"Most pathogens love the cooler temperatures, and a lot of diseases like the 70-75 degree weather—it's been perfect for them," she says

Some heirloom devotees, like Herb and Plow in Maynardville, will not bring any heirlooms at all to market; others, like Bill and Betty Byrne's Middlebrook Pike Farm, Shady Lady Farm, will have only a couple of varieties, and those will not ripen until well into August. "The problem is that when we get too much water, the vine does not grow strong enough to produce many tomatoes—or they get big spots about the time they're ready to pick, which is like kissing your sister," says Bill.

But we're not giving up, no, not us heirloom lovers. "Heirlooms are popular, and get more popular every year," notes Monte Stanley of Stanley's.

And even when the lower yields and longer growing season drive prices up to $1.50 a pound and more, we stick with heirlooms, because the following attributes far outweigh any extra-long waits or other shortcomings of our favorite varieties:

They taste great: "People love heirlooms because of the nostalgia—they remind us of another time," says Wszelaki, who is also UT's commercial vegetable extension specialist. "And while they may not be technically sweeter, they do tend to be less acidic, so there is a perception that they are sweeter, and that they have a better flavor—but that's also a matter of personal opinion."

First-time market grower Jonathan Buchanan of South Knoxville's Crooked Road Farm likes the flavor better than hybrids. He eats a tomato sandwich for lunch every single day in the season—fixed with Dijon mustard, as he's not a mayo fan, and particularly loves the Big Rainbow variety between two slices of bread. At the same time, he admits, that thin skin and lower acid content makes his heirlooms tougher to transport for market without bruising or cracking.

They come in unusual shapes and colors: I remember thinking that Yellow Pear tomatoes must surely be the latest in hybrids—tiny, sweet, yellow things that look like small bowling pins. Turns out they're actually a centuries-old European heirloom (with the tag encompassing lots of offshoots). Far more than modern-day marketers, our tomato-collecting forebears really went for all manner of colors and shapes when breeding or saving seeds for open pollinated varieties. It is the hybrids that tend to be red and round, while heirlooms come in green sausage shapes, huge yellow- and red-striped orbs, tiny "white" currant spheres, and on and on. "People do like the red hybrids, and it's all a matter of preference," says Wszelaki. "But there is something about the novelty of some of the heirloom varieties. When I'm talking to growers, I emphasize that you want a regular, red round tomato, but also something that will set you apart in the market. Heirlooms provide that."

They're a unifying force: Without becoming too sentimental, I can truthfully say that heirloom tomatoes bring out the best in people. They're fun to talk about, of interest to country farmers, hipsters, foodies, and garden/dining dabblers alike. I couldn't tell you a single name, but I've had lovely conversations at Stanley's with a Florida transplant and his mother about the weak shoulders of the Cherokee Purple; a middle-aged East Knoxville man about the merits of German Pinks for sandwiches and how he had grown tomatoes all winter on his kitchen table, which his wife wanted back; my neighbor's sister about her dozen Black Krim tomatoes, which she grew exclusively, as a calming discussion in the highly charged recovery room at the hospital after her brother's heart incident. Most pleasing to me: My very conservative bridge friend Sarah and I admired all the plants at Ace Hardware while pricing tomato cages that were as brightly colored as we hoped our produce would be. Resistance was futile: We both bought some Mr. Stripey's (or was it some sort of Oxheart?), and chatted about the seedlings instead of lambasting each other's political candidates the rest of the year.

Every seedling shares a story: Even if you never toss a single heirloom in a salad or marvel at the emerging green globes in your own garden, the heirloom names—and the stories behind them—are fascinating. There is, of course, the ubiquitous Cherokee Purple, cradled by the Tennessee tribe more than a century back, but not widely available until the '90s. There are tales of the Black Krim, with its slightly salty, dark-fleshed fruit, being transported from the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea by soldiers returning from the Crimean War to their homes throughout Europe. One of rookie grower Buchanan's favorites, known simply (and aptly) as "Large Red," appeals to him as much for its history as its sweet taste and ribbed surface. "It goes back to the pre-Civil War days and according to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, where I got the seeds, it was a standard in the 19th century—pretty much everybody grew it," he says.

My own favorite tale is the "Mortgage Lifter," aka "Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter." When I saw the seeds last year in an Indiana hardware store, and then the seedlings at Stanley's, I assumed these tomatoes would "lift" my mortgage by saving me money, perhaps by being particularly good for canning tomato sauce to see me through the winter. But a bit of digging this year revealed that the only mortgage lifted by the variety was that of West Virginia auto mechanic Charlie Bynes' own $6,000 house, in the 1940s. With no formal education, employing only sheer determination and a baby's ear syringe for pollinating, he started with a German Johnson and a ring of 10 other big varieties and six years later had managed to breed a big 'un that he later sold for the exorbitant sum of a dollar per plant until he paid off his mortgage. I guess I just identify with old Radiator Charlie, with all of us amateurs who take a notion to plant heirlooms,for ourselves or to bring to market. The thought of him in post-Depression garage dreaming of giant tomatoes for future generations of macho gardeners, and tasty ones at that, cheers me. Because we still grow them, he is remembered; he's still amusing—and nurturing—a whole new generation of gardeners, whether they use Miracle-Gro or insist on organic, are food hipsters or homemakers.

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It's really nice that there is so much to love about heirlooms, because they can also be, well, a pain. With a few notable exceptions, like Arkansas Traveler and Yellow Pear, they don't tend to produce a lot per plant. Even a powerhouse gardener like Monte Stanley only expects four or five tomatoes from each Cherokee Purple, for example. Buchanan allows how his six heirloom varieties grown in South Knoxville are far more labor-intensive than the typical hybrid, and so tender he can't stack them to drive to market. The varieties he's chosen, like most heirlooms, are also vining, which means they grow tall and require lots of staking—and tend to slump over or break with heavy fruit.

Heirlooms are unlikely to resist disease well, either, says Monte Stanley. "The hybrids are always better with that."

Stanley also points out that Knoxville has experienced some success with heirloom grafts—manually modifying the root stock of an heirloom tomato onto the sturdy, disease-resistant scion of a hybrid. Wszelaki has taught workshops in the practice at Beardsley Farm, and Stanley's has experienced great success with this year's introduction of grafted plants, which Stanley says tend to be more prolific and disease resistant, even while producing highly flavorful heirloom fruit.

Of course, the seeds from such an enterprise produce the same plant as their heirloom parent, so grafting must be done each year. It is possible for amateurs to graft, says Wszelaki, but a bit tricky. "You provide a healing chamber so the cuts can heal back together; it's a high humidity chamber with reduced light. Anyone who can meet that condition can successfully graft."

Short of grafting, though, it just makes sense that heirloom varieties, with their various shortcomings, have been hybridized. For market and continuity, our society needs the disease resistance of the hybrids, their high production values, their thick skin that allows them to be transported.

But even these hybrids underline the need to keep heirlooms around, says Wszelaki, who notes that there are legions of folks who have passed down a worthy seed from generation to generation, and even breeders who go to lengths like obtaining seeds from stands of wild fruit, just to preserve what's gone before.

"The bio-diversity is so important," she says. "We don't always know what we might need; we don't want to lose the genes from those heirlooms. We need to have them to go back to, they may be a good resource."

Byrne of Shady Lady Farm, who has grown heirlooms since 2002, has a more down-to-earth reason to encourage heirlooms. Says he: "We have not been able to please everybody with one tomato, and I doubt we ever will."