Heirloom Tomatoes Taste Like Home

sideTOMATOES TASTE LIKE HOME. They conjure vivid memories like walking down to the garden with my parents in search of the perfect green fruit for fried green tomatoes, gathering armloads of vine ripened sweetness with Grandma to can for the months ahead, or memories like my own of cold winter nights warmed with hot soup. There is a visceral connection to our past and to our home, which tomatoes bring to life with a quality that can almost be described as the flavor of sunlight.
The first recorded instance of tomatoes being grown in the United States was penned by herbalist William Salmon in his work Botanologia. His writing of 1710 indicates that tomatoes were being grown in the “Carolinas” as a food crop. The tomato enjoyed prominence in many coastal dishes, yet did not begin to show its face in the mountainous region of the Carolinas until 1833, where according to Andrew Smith in his book The Tomato in America, it was grown in Salem, North Carolina.
These early tomatoes are what we now refer to as Heirloom Tomatoes. Heirlooms differ from the conventional tomatoes found at most grocery stores. Although they can be round and red in appearance, the diversity of shape and color range from the smooth green striped fruit of the Zebra Tomato to the varied shape of the dark pink Cherokee Purple, but the thing that most prominently sets heirlooms apart from other tomatoes is their flavor. Chef Josiah McGaughey of Asheville’s Salt and Smoke says, “The flavor of heirlooms is more concentrated. Grocery store tomatoes hold more water and the taste gets diluted by all that liquid. Then you have the texture component – heirlooms have a crispness to them that provides a mouth feel you just can’t achieve with conventional tomatoes.”
When it comes to Heirloom Tomatoes there are no limits to their uses, flavors, and variations. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Tennessee Britches, Mr. Stripey, and the German Johnson are just a few of the varieties found in the stalls of the farmer’s market. Across the South we are seeing a rise in the demand for these prized varieties of yesteryear as they are showcased on the menus of fine dining establishments.
“At their peak, I begin to dream about tomatoes,” says McGaughey, “The beauty of an heirloom tomato is you don’t have to do anything to it. I wouldn’t eat a grocery store tomato like an apple, but I would if it was an heirloom.”
The tomato is a gateway crop. It is one of the first to capture the passion and imagination of gardeners and the first one that people learn how to can. To harness the flavor of the tomato in all its diversity and complexity is a journey through the growing season. This journey in the South begins with the Fried Green Tomato.
“My mom invented Fried Green Tomatoes,” McGaughey says laughing, “at least I thought so until I was much older.” McGaughey goes on to say, “The best Fried Green Tomatoes depend on picking the tomato at the perfect time. If there is any orange, pink, or red color showing on the skin it is too late. You want the skin to be evenly green and the flesh to be firm.”
Tomatoes are at the height of their flavor beginning in July and running through October in North Carolina. This is the best time to prepare dishes that accentuate the taste of sunlight such as Salsa Fresca, Sauce Vierge, and Summer Tomato Gazpacho