Book celebrates heirloom tomatoes

RHINEBECK, N.Y. — Amy Goldman's one-acre vegetable garden is a sun-bathed laboratory of sorts, a sloping plot where one of America's most celebrated gardeners and champions of biodiversity allows a fruit or vegetable to express its genes fully.

She has written books on obscure and historic varieties of squash and melons, but now, she feels, those were just "warm-ups" for the big one. "I love tomatoes; who doesn't?" she says. "I can relate to them. They have personality, they have history, they have flair. They have everything."

They also have Victor Schrager, a still-life photographer who has spent the past five summers at Goldman's farm producing studio portraits of these revered berries. The result is "The Heirloom Tomato" (Bloomsbury, $35), a book that not only celebrates what it calls "the world's most beautiful fruit" but also acts as a manual for home gardeners. Here, we find varieties of tomatoes we could not have imagined, much less bought in a supermarket or even a farmers market, along with places to get the seed for next year's home harvest.

The book offers an image of a brace of ribbed, red-orange tomatoes on a platter, like squat pumpkins. Ugly, they're named — or misnamed. In the pictures of beefsteaks, Schrager shows six varieties, one on top of another, as if they were circus performers, strongmen forming a pyramid. It might have been fun to weigh the stack, which probably would have come close to 15 pounds.

Goldman has done the research and the growing, but the images deliver a transcending idea. They are artfully composed, professionally staged, softly lit and narrowly focused. The tomato, that Everyman's fruit of high summer, suddenly becomes an almost forbidden object of mouthwatering beauty and desire. To avoid pangs, eat before viewing the images or reading the text. Perhaps Flamme, a smallish, round French tomato variety with firm, tangerine-colored flesh that, Goldman writes, is a "perfect blend of sweet and tart." Or the dark cherry tomato, Black Cherry, which is "fruity and well balanced." Or Japanese Oxheart, a two-pounder that is "winey, sweet, nice fruit acid."

The point, of course, is that there is no one heirloom tomato, but thousands of varieties. The public perception, Goldman notes, is that the lone antidote to the bland, rock-hard, thick-skinned, ethylene-ripened supermarket tomato is the Brandywine. But that heirloom alone has half a dozen or more variants.

She sourced many of her tomatoes from a seed vault in Iowa but received other seeds from the international network of gardeners, conservationists, farmers and scientists that she has developed over the years. "They shared their knowledge, their seeds, their recipes. They enriched my life, my garden and this book," she said.

The grass-roots conservation organization named Seed Savers Exchange, of which Goldman is chairman, has 5,979 varieties preserved in its seed bank in Decorah, Iowa. When the book project was in full swing, she grew 1,000 plants in her garden each summer, representing 500 varieties. Over the five years she tested and retested as many as 1,000 varieties, all started from seed in April in her greenhouse.

This summer, she has scaled back, if you can call it that, to just two each of 250 varieties. About half the hillside garden is given to tomatoes, the rest to squash and sweet corn. The first impression is that the tomato vines are vigorous and largely free of the leaf blight diseases that are so prevalent these days. Goldman has been growing tomatoes since she was a teen-ager, and you sense that she has perfected the art.

Once the vigorous seedlings are ready to plant, she installs them through a black, porous landscape cloth that is laid out in strips from long rolls. The cloth is covered in a generous mulch of straw. Each plant is grown through a cage and is further supported by a wooden stake on each side. She gives a lot of room to each vine, five feet from its neighbor in rows seven feet wide. In July, as they grow bushy, she snips off the lower leaves. This is a time-consuming chore, but the pruning cuts down on blights, which form first on the lower leaves. The generous spacing also gives the plants the sunlight and breezy conditions needed for healthy growth.

Even with such accommodation, some varieties refuse to stay put. There is Alberto Shatters, a sprawling currant type named for the way its tiny, pealike berries drop when ripe. Goldman calls it "the smallest tomato I've ever seen" and with good, acidic flavor.

She stops to point out the Pink Peach tomato, with soft skin covered in hairs. (There's also a yellow version, called Yellow Peach.) It is too soft and juicy to be found anywhere but in one's own garden. Then there's Thai Pink, a light gray-rose hue when ripening but destined to become the hot pink of nail polish.

Among the herculean beefsteaks, there's Polish Giant. "It's genetically primed to produce huge fruits," she said. It may not be the tastiest beefsteak, but it's certainly one of the largest. Among these heavyweights, she likes Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter. She writes: "Eating a thick juicy mortgage lifter slab, marbled with white — like fat — is like having a last steak supper before you die and go to tomato heaven."

One of the most striking varieties is Jersey Devil, a paste type but huge, weighing a pound or more. Goldman describes it as sweet and rich.

She introduces readers to an oddball called the Reisetomate, whose lobes can be removed intact, like orange segments. In fact, most of them are oddballs, in that they are not the perfect smooth red orbs that we had come to believe defined the tomato.

How did the tomato become so diverse?

Wild forms originated on the western coast of South America and were domesticated over centuries in what is now Mexico. When the Old World met the New, the tomato headed east, all the way across to Asia. When it returned with the immigrant settlement of the United States, it came in all the variety of its localized versions and then proceeded to evolve.

The seeds of heirloom vegetables reliably resemble their parents, but the gardener can select traits over successive generations to create something bigger or tastier or a different color.

So each of these varieties comes with poignant and personal stories that in their own way are as enriching as the vegetables themselves. Nor is this a phenomenon assigned just to the past.

Two of the 200 varieties featured in the book come to us from Goldman herself. In 2002, she and her daughter, Sara, took a trip to the Galapagos Islands, where tomatoes grow wild, and Goldman collected a wild currant type with a high sugar content and has named it Sara's Galapagos.

In Italy in 1999, she found a ribbed Genovese type at a grocery store and saved the seeds. By growing successive generations, she was able to remove the genetic instability inherent in hybrids and now has an heirloom that is identical to its parent. She has called it Goldman's Italian American in honor of her late father's grocery store in Brooklyn.

She has no one favorite, and the varieties winnowed for the book are there because she likes them. "I picked what I thought was the most interesting, historic and delicious," she said over a salad of sliced, multicolored cherry tomatoes. "Why confine yourself to just one?"

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