Posted on 15 June 2008 by



By Kira Hamman

What does the word “heirloom” mean to you?

Old, dusty things that used to belong to your great-grandmother, right?

If you’re lucky, maybe your great-grandmother was the funky jewelry type, but otherwise we’re probably talking tarnished silver and dark, heavy wooden stuff. Anyway, heirloom sure doesn’t mean food. At least, it didn’t until recently.

Now, suddenly, in every chic restaurant in the country you can pay $12 for an heirloom tomato salad. Let’s hope it’s not my great-grandmother’s tomato salad, complete with gobs of mayonnaise.

No, it’s not the tomatoes that are old, it’s the seeds. Or, rather, the lineage of the seeds. Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that go way back — sometimes way, way back. They tend to have better flavor, texture, and color than newer hybrid (which biologically just means crossed) varieties.

Some people, including me, even claim that heirlooms are also more disease resistant. So why would anyone ever choose the hybrids? Because the one thing that the hybrids beat the heirlooms on is the one thing that matters to the giant seed and produce companies of the world: storage.

Heirlooms are fragile treasures that, generally speaking, need to be grown close to where they’re consumed. Think garden to table, rather than Chile to New Jersey. Hybrids, on the other hand, are tough both literally and figuratively.

It’s hardly surprising that they don’t taste as good, given the fact that they’re usually picked green and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to their destinations, then gassed to make them turn red before they’re plunked under fluorescent lights at the supermarket. It makes you feel a little sorry for them, really.

If you remember sweet, red tomatoes with juice dripping down your chin and you wonder why the tomatoes you buy at the grocery store never taste that way, this is why. In fact, heirloom tomatoes are probably exactly what your great-grandmother grew, if your great-grandmother was a gardener.

Her variety would have depended on her own heritage, and the seeds she used may or may not be commercially available. But even if they’re not, hundreds of other varieties are, and all the ones I’ve tried are delicious.

Heirloom tomato seeds: $2.50 for 100
Heirloom tomato at the farmer’s market: $5/ pound
Heirloom tomato salad at a restaurant: $12
Heirloom tomato taste: priceless.

3 Responses to “Heirlooms”

  1. deb Says:

    Save the seeds and they are free.

  2. our friend Ben Says:

    Ha! Classic post, Kira! (I remember those gobs of mayo myself.) But you’re the first person I’ve ever heard say that heirlooms are more disease-resistant. My understanding was that hybrids were first developed to try to get some disease-resistance into susceptible heirlooms (not of course known as such at the time), before they started working to make them into hard rubber balls so they could be shipped…

  3. Michael Nolan Says:

    ofB: Heirlooms that are native to specific areas tend to be more disease resistant IN THOSE AREAS, though part of the fascination with growing the heirloom varieties is that we can grow exotic varieties that grew somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away and that lends itself to a lower disease resistance.

    It is quite similar to the idea that eating honey from local bees can help with allergies, because the local bees are getting pollen from the very plants that cause those allergies.

    Local heirloom varieties are more adapted to the issues of specific areas and are thus (usually) more disease-resistant there.

    side note: I really need to email you after my recent trip to NC. Not really tomato-related, so I’ll leave it to email.

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