The obsession with hand-me-down tomatoes, the backlash, and the future of rare strains of food.
Heirloom tomatoes come in reds, whites, and chocolate browns. Their shapes are funky, flattened, scalloped, rounded, and lobed. The Brandywine tomato releases a rich, umami core. Cherokee Purples have more of an acid-tinged sweetness. Mortgage Lifters have a sweet, pink flesh. Heirloom tomatoes are real characters, pre-industrial hand-me-downs saved by stubborn farmers for generations, seemingly free from the genetic manipulation of scientists and plant breeders.An interest in heirlooms started growing about 30 years ago. Now it has become a full-blown obsession in the food world. In the beginning, cooks and gardeners turned to old-school tomato varieties that open-pollinated and generated seeds that could be saved and replanted, largely because the demands of the supermarket for round, firm-flesh, all-season tomatoes had created mealy, gas-ripened, hybridized fruits that nearly resembled the cardboard they were packed in. Today, you can walk into Wal-Mart and buy an heirloom tomato. Even hybrid varieties, like Early Girl, owned by Monsanto, can be found masquerading as heirlooms on restaurant menus.This year, however, new questions have arisen about the role of heirloom fruit. A severe outbreak of late-blight fungus has swept the rainy Northeast and destroyed all kinds of tomatoes, potatoes, and other nightshade-family plants. The attention blight has been getting has alsoput heirloom varieties in the spotlight-as the weakest in the pack. In The New York Times, haute-barnyard chef Dan Barber wrote that the prevailing foodie gospel celebrating nostalgic breeds overlooks the value of hybrids developed by state extension agencies for better resistance to plant diseases like late blight.It's not the first time a case against heirlooms has been made. Scientific American called heirloomstold the Albany Times-Union that the company would not be selling heirloom varieties next year.But that may be an overreaction. "I have no idea why the company would say that," Bill Fry, a plant pathologist at Cornell University who studies blight, told me when I called to ask about whether heirlooms were more prone to disease. "This company distributed plants infected with blight, which would suggest they don't know very much." Despite being inbred and old, it isn't clear that all heirlooms are more prone to late blight than newer hybrid varieties. According to Fry's and his colleague's research, both hybrids and heirloom tomatoes show resistance to late blight fungus.The lesson of the late blight outbreak should not be to abandon heirlooms, but to source plants and seeds from regional greenhouses and regional seed savers. Because tomatoes are climacteric fruits-changes in sunlight and temperature trigger them to ripen-transporting a Czech heirloom like Stupice Slicing Tomato to Southern California might make the plant more fickle, whereas something average, like a solid hybrid, Sungold tomato, might get the job done. There are also efforts underway to create regional seed-saving banks, like the Hudson Valley Seed Library, to distribute plants adapted to a specific locale. The kind of persistence and dedication that goes into saving heirloom tomatoes could help save plants destined for extinction-and could even foster marketable regional specialties, like the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin. As Emily Badger in Miller-McCune magazine writes, the model that's revived older tomato varieties could help save other disappearing strains of pigs, turkeys, or cows. A healthy food system should accommodate both hybrids and heirlooms with a focus on a greater variety of plants, with more regional distinctions, and, best of all, tomatoes selected for taste.Photo by flickr (cc) user clayirving