The Weak-Ass Heirloom Tomato

By Kay Steiger

by Flickr user LensENVY (Creative Commons license)

by Flickr user LensENVY (Creative Commons license)

Scientific American has a series of stories on its website about food (this slideshow of a mushroom laboratory is really, uh, something), and this one about heirloom tomatoes was really interesting to me. For starters, from an evolutionary standpoint, tomatoes are kind of a mystery to scientists:

The cultivated tomato is a member of the nightshade family that includes New World crops such as eggplant, potato and chili pepper, which spread around the world after Christopher Columbus brought them back to Spain in the 15th century. But whereas scientists have uncovered a wealth of archaeological evidence—including microscopic starches on pottery shards that point to the taming of many crops from the Americas as far back as 10,000 years ago—the record is blank when it comes to the tomato.

It also goes on to say that heirloom tomatoes, often hailed as some of the best for cooking (there’s even an entire cookbook devoted to the subject), are also some of the least genetically diverse kinds of tomatoes out there. That’s not necessarily a good thing. The less diverse the tomato’s genes are, the more susceptible to “fungal infections that cause the fruit to crack, split and otherwise rot quickly.” I think I speak for everyone when I say, ew. Now scientists are busy trying to hybridize tomatoes with other species to make them genetically stronger.

This is all really interesting to me because I (probably like a lot of you) feel that while good tomatoes are really, really good, bad tomatoes make you want to die. I’ve always heard heirloom tomatoes are really the best, but I also had some cherry tomatoes the other week that were pretty good. And Ben Miller informs me that you should never, ever, under any circumstances refrigerate your tomatoes. Will heirloom tomatoes remain king for cooks?


10 responses to “The Weak-Ass Heirloom Tomato

  1. Christopher M

    Tomatoes of all kinds are extremely variable. You have to get to know what they offer at your grocery. Sometimes heirlooms are worth it, other times not at all.

    You also hear a lot of talk among foodies to the effect that tomatoes are basically inedible other than during the summer. But there’s a huge amount of variation here too. I had some grape tomatoes in the middle of this past winter that were totally delicious.

  2. There are some fine heirloom tomatoes, but many of the modern varieties are also great if grown well and allowed to ripen before harvest.

  3. I agree, Christopher: grape tomatoes seem to make it through the winter pretty well. Even better are the cherry tomatoes that come in those little plastic red mesh bags. They’re greenhouse-grown, but consistently delicious.

  4. There are so many different heirloom tomatoes, you should have no trouble finding really great ones, even ones that are less susceptible to some of the pests you mentioned. For flavor, they are hard to beat. And they have this one great virtue that hybrid tomatoes do not: you can save the seeds and plant them the following year. Hence, no need to ever buy seeds again, which really disappoints the big seed companies such as Monsanto.

  5. I’m a huge fan of heirloom tomatoes; most of the tastiest tomatoes I’ve eaten have been heirlooms. I love the variety of strong flavors you find. Plus, I find most grocery store tomatoes to be hard and flavorless. I suspect, though, that hybrid tomatoes in and of themselves are not a problem; the issue is what qualities we’re trying to breed into them. In most cases today, we’re breeding them for uniformity and durability on cross-country trips. If we bred them for good flavor and health instead… maybe they’d rival the heirlooms? In the end, I think it’s most important that they be grown in good soil and eaten fresh.

  6. Note this Grist blurb about why the SA article is just wrong:
    I’m growing my own heirloom tomatoes this summer, so will judge for myself in July and August.

  7. Pingback: The Tragedy of Cold Fruit « The Internet Food Association

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