Written by Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
I am a tomato snob. I admit it. If I had to choose one fruit that I could have in season all the time, it would be tomatoes. And it would be heirloom tomatoes of all shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors.
If you are new to heirlooms, don’t expect them to all be round and red. Heirloom tomatoes do not have the genetic mutation that gives tomatoes a uniform red color. And unlike the seeds of hybridized plants, heirloom seeds “breed true.” Both sides of an heirloom variety’s DNA are derived from a stable cultivar, whereas hybridized seeds combine different cultivars. People often ask how grocery store tomatoes can look so pretty and taste so awful. The same mutation that makes tomatoes red also ruins a tomato’s historic taste and texture. So unlike thick-skinned, mealy grocery store tomatoes, heirloom skins are thin, bruise and crack easily, and their shelf life is shorter. Grow your own or purchase local heirlooms.
Like animals, plants can become extinct. Fortunately, heirloom seeds can be collected. And because heirloom tomatoes self-pollinate, the plants grown from these seeds will continue to show traits of the original seed. Thus heirloom varieties have been in cultivation for generations, with each generation saving and passing down seeds to the next generation.
I purchase my heirlooms from Snow’s Bend Farms, typically at the Pepper Place Market. Snow’s Bend Farm is located outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the community of Coker. They supply a variety of not only tomatoes but also many other non-GMO and organic produce to Birmingham’s best restaurants. And they offer a community supported agriculture program that you can subscribe to for local pick up at SnowsBendFarm.com.
Snow’s Bend Farm owners David Snow and Margaret Ann Toohey recommend slicing and salting their heirlooms, adding a splash of good vinegar and olive oil, and some thinly sliced leek or onion. “We also love a good panzanella or tossing them with pasta, garlic, basil, and Parmesan,” Toohey suggests. “Mixing several varieties in these dishes create meals that are as flavorful as they are colorful.”
Get a taste of their favorite heirlooms in our photograph here. From the large, yellow meaty Persimmon to Aunt Ruby’s German Green, which is green even when ripe, the couple grows a beautiful variety. Aunt Ruby’s is my new favorite after Toohey picked one for me to try recently. Another favorite pick is the Italian, with its soft texture and ripe flavors. I also love the Cherokee Purple with its purple color and smoky flavor. It is more than 100 years old and was grown by the Cherokee Indians. Snow recommends it for a BLT. And for a tomato sandwich like my Pappy used to make? I pick the Brandywine, with its classic tomato flavor and texture.