– by Christina Schiavoni
Now that tomato season has (finally!) rolled around, we’re likely to start seeing more and more of these delicious veggies (or fruits, depending on your definition) at distribution. Something we’re unlikely to see, however, is uniform-looking conventional tomatoes like the ones we’d find at the grocery store. Instead, Chelsea CSA members are likely to find tomatoes of all shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns – and tastes too. This is one of the many benefits of getting our produce from small local farmers who care about what they grow, and about the people who eat what they grow. Deb mentioned that some of the tomatoes she and Pete grow are ‘heirloom’ varieties. While most of us have probably heard this term, there’s a lot of confusion about what it actually means, so I’ve decided to share the results of a little research I’ve done.
Tomatoes, which are in the same plant family as potatoes and eggplant, originated in South America. They have been growing in this country at least dating back to Jeffersonian times. Following WWII, the growing of tomatoes, like many other crops, changed drastically. Chemical treatment, mechanization, and transport over long distances became commonplace. As a result, rather than being bred for taste, tomatoes were bred to be durable, easily transportable, and able to store well. In the process, a lot of genetic diversity of tomatoes was lost. According to one source, over 80% of tomato varieties available in 1910 are now extinct.
The growing of heirloom varieties of produce such as tomatoes is a means of preserving this threatened genetic diversity. Combining several definitions, heirloom tomatoes are ‘open pollinated, non hybrid varieties that were introduced prior to WWII and have been developed and maintained by individuals over the years. ‘ More generally, heirloom tomatoes are tomatoes that have been grown over several generations, often through seeds collected after each harvest and passed down through families. The fact that heirlooms tend to be open-pollinated and non-hybrid allows their seeds to be collected and then planted with reliable results.
So as you can see, there is no one taste or appearance characteristic of ‘heirloom’ tomatoes. Just the opposite, it is variability in taste and appearance that makes heirlooms what they are -and makes them such enjoyable tomatoes to eat!