An ode to the tomato

An ode to the tomato

It's no wonder that advocates of locally grown foods rally 'round the tomato.

These iconic fruits, sun-ripened and picked at their peak, are the epitome of faultless yet fleeting flavor. Tomatoes' tantalizing sugars don't weather a few hours in the refrigerator unsullied, much less a cross-country journey in the dead of winter.

So what would a column on seasonal eating — in its first year, no less — be without an ode to the tomato?

After a slow start to summer, homegrown tomatoes remained in late June the stuff of dreams: large wedges tossed into green salads and pastas, succulent slices adorning sandwiches and pizzas and slabs artfully balanced with fresh basil and cheese for classic Caprese. Yet the robust vines and blooms of Brandywine bushes in my garden foreshadowed a fruitful harvest.

Of course, the Brandywines were a long time in coming. No fan of heirloom tomatoes, my mother-in-law had staunchly defended hybrids for the first five years of our joint gardening venture. Who was I to contradict her decades of experience?

My superficial knowledge of the term "heirloom" came from trendy restaurant menus. Neither a horticulturist nor expert gardener, I've since managed to grasp the deeper distinctions between heirloom and hybridized plants. The former's attributes and shortcomings usually are more obvious.

Heirloom tomatoes are those flamboyant fruits that come in virtually all the colors of the rainbow: red, yellow, purple, pale-green, streaked like a summer sunset with tangerine or nearly black as if bruised from "a backyard tomato smackdown," in the words of Washington Post food writer Jane Black.

These tomatoes also boast names to match their fantastic features. Monikers like "Casady's Folly" or "Mullens' Mortgage Lifter," "Lemon Boy" or "Cherokee Purple," make "Brandywine" seem almost mundane.

An heirloom grown under ideal conditions and picked at its prime is a wonder to behold — and taste. But most gardeners will attest that heirlooms are a bit temperamental and suffer from the whims of weather and pests. All too often, they emerge from the garden lumpy, bumpy, disheveled and scarred. Hence, the hybrid's appeal.

To produce hybrids, plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties, trying to achieve offspring with the best traits from both parents. Many were developed in specific growing regions for precise purposes. That's the story behind Oregon State University's "Medford," developed decades ago in the Bear Creek Valley for canneries that existed at the time.

Large-scale commercial agriculture — with its obligations to year-round supply ensured by shipping over long distances — has conspired to give hybrids a bad rap. Transplanting the humble hybrid from grocery store to garden, however, makes all the difference. Sun-ripened on the vine, many hybrids boast excellent flavor, plus they're prolific and usually easier to grow.

After last year's fickle weather took its toll on our hybrids, the beefy Brandywines with their superior flavor emerged as tomato heros. So this year, we tried to cover all the bases by planting, in addition to Roma-type canning tomatoes and Brandywines, hybrid "Early Girls" and "Better Boys."

True to their name, the Early Girls were the first to set fruit. They'll be divine after a long winter of tomato depravation. But the longest, hottest weeks of summer will test their mettle against Brandywines.

If all else fails, heirlooms do redeem themselves with proponents of seed-saving. Hybrid seeds cannot be reused in subsequent years to yield the same plant.

For the widest variety of heirloom and hybrid tomato plants — plus plenty of opinions to go with them — check out one of the local farmers markets next spring. April and May markets are awash in tomato starts, which can flourish even in large pots if given full sun and organic-rich, good-draining soil.

Read Sarah Lemon's blog, The Whole Dish, at www.mailtribune.com/wholedish or follow The Whole Dish on Twitter.

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