Preserving the past with heirloom tomatoes

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After enjoying heirloom tomatoes in restaurants for years, my wife and I decided last summer to grow our own. We watched and waited for our Russian Purples to ripen to a lovely, edible shape and size. But we waited too long, and the egg-shaped orbs developed long splits at the stem base, then fell lifelessly into the dirt.

Despite our initial failure as urban farmers, we vowed to try again. This year we planted five different kinds of heirloom tomatoes in our 12’ x 8’ backyard garden.

We don’t expect any of them to ripen to a brilliant grocery-store red. Our 2012 crop includes Black Krim, Orange Oxheart, Lemon Boy, Chocolate Cherries and Mr. Stripey, all heirloom varieties whose colors and patterns are reflected in their whimsical names. We plan to study the plants in our care more closely this year, because our little garden is an exercise in preservation, not for our- selves as much as for the fruit itself.

Heirloom vegetables and fruits – also known as antique fruits – have attracted a mainstream following among diners, cooks and canners looking for more flavorful strains that haven’t been hybridized for mass production. But many varieties are also turning up on the fruit-and-vegetable equivalent of the “endangered species” list, as the drive for mass produc- tion threatens the future of some historic strains.

In the Midwest and Central Plains states alone, 16 varieties of vegetables, grains, cereals, meats, poultry, fish and legumes are in danger, according to the Ark of Taste, a food preservation effort launched by Slow Food USA. The list includes Lake Michigan whitefish, midget white turkeys, the Beaver Dam pepper and the Sheboygan tomato.

Much of this decline has to do with efforts by the agricultural industrial complex to create brands with mass appeal and warehouse staying power, compromising or eliminating historic varieties in the process. But sometimes it’s the unusual appearance and variant tastes of the vegetables themselves that confuse consumers who, like us, never before knew they existed.

“They look different, taste different and sometimes are smaller or have imperfections,” says Leah Caplan, chief foor officer for Metcalfe’s Market, which has locations in Wauwatosa and Madison’s Hilldale Shopping Center. “But to me it’s the imperfections that make them beautiful.”

Metcalfe’s often stocks Black Krim, Green Zebra and Yellow Taxi heirloom tomato varieties, and the names say it all. The store also carries various heirloom lettuce and antique apple varieties in the fall, depending on their availability.

To qualify as an heirloom, a vegetable or fruit must be 80 years old or more and able to reproduce the same variety from its own seeds, which is something hybrids often can’t do. They have delicate skins, because they have not been bred for warehouse storage. They also must be eaten closer to harvesting than hybrids, which makes them healthier by default. There’s less time for nutrients to break down during storage.

“They also tend to be delicious, because your great- great-grandmother wouldn’t have kept planting them if they hadn’t been,” Caplan says.

Heirlooms tend to be products of certain times, places and harvesting schedules, linking them to their terroir in much the same way as wine grapes. They bring greater biodiversity to the species, which comes in handy when some varieties are struck down by disease or blight.

Caplan has several personal favorites among heirloom fruits and vegetables. She loves Blue Pearmain apples for their purplish-blue color and complex flavors and fragrances. “It’s like eating apple perfume,” she says. She also favors Little Gem romaine lettuce for its bright green color and high nutritive value. She recommends the tan, squatty Long Island Cheese Pumpkin because of its rich flavor and low moisture content, which make it the perfect pie pumpkin. She also has high praise for green rhubarb, which tends to be sweeter than the red varieties.

If all goes well with our heirloom tomatoes, maybe next year we’ll try out some other varieties, such as Cherokee Purple, Moneymaker, Pineapple or Kellogg’s Breakfast tomatoes.

But there will always be a place in our garden for Mr. Stripey.

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