Tomayto, Tomahto: All About Tomatoes
When you picture a tomato, you probably imagine a plump red sphere. It’s uniformly shaped and sized, nestled alongside rows of peaches and stacks of carrots. You probably didn’t know that this tomato is one of a thousand different types, each unique pods of flavor that burst between your teeth.
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Picture a Tomato
When you picture a tomato, you probably imagine a plump red sphere.
It’s uniformly shaped and sized, nestled alongside rows of peaches and stacks of carrots. You probably didn’t know that this tomato is one of a thousand different types, each unique pods of flavor that burst between your teeth.
There are nine species of tomato (Genus Lycopersicon), seven of which are edible. They run the entire spectrum of size and color, from tiny yellow cherry tomatoes to black-red pear-shaped tomatoes. In contrast to this motley collection, the perfect supermarket tomato is perfectly boring.
In favor of a rainbow of colors and flavors, many people are turning to the heirloom tomato. Not only do heirloom tomatoes look unique and taste delicious, but they also decrease your environmental impact and increase biodiversity.
A variety of colorful heirloom tomatoes (and a few peppers).
Florida is the nation’s largest producer of fresh tomatoes, accounting for 50% of all tomatoes grown domestically and virtually all tomatoes produced during the winter months.
Ironically Florida is not an ideal location for growing tomatoes. The state’s sandy nitrogen-poor soil and humid climate means tomato growers must apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides on a weekly basis. Florida uses eight times the amount of pesticides than California, the second leading tomato grower in the United States.
Red And Purple
What’s more, these tomatoes must be transported over 2,500 miles to reach a grocery store in Southern California.
In contrast, heirloom farmers tend to grow organic produce, meaning that your tomatoes will be grown pesticide free. Buying locally grown heirloom tomatoes will reduce your carbon footprint and your exposure to chemical additives.
Variety Is Critical To Survival
It is extremely important to continue to cultivate heirlooms in order to maintain plant biodiversity.
With the introduction of industrial agriculture, we saw diversity exchanged for uniformity. Industrial agriculture intensifies the input (fertilizers, energy, water, machinery) to maximize the output (high yield from single variety crops planted year after year).
Although this allowed for a rapid transition towards uniform fruits with long shelf life, it led to a loss of biodiversity. A result of standardization, we have monocropped 75% of the genetic base of our subsistence into ruin.
Thankfully, customers are now requesting more diverse produce. The tomato market is developing and diversifying, with heirlooms leading the charge. You can help reclaim biodiversity by supporting heirloom tomatoes.
What exactly is an heirloom tomato?
Heirloom tomatoes are generally identified as a tomato that has been passed down over generations and is characterized by unique appearances and arguably better taste. Heirlooms can be divided into four categories:
• Commercial Heirlooms: Open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, or tomato varieties which have been circulated for over 50 years.
• Family Heirlooms: Seeds that have been passed down for several generations within family.
• Created Heirlooms: Result from crossing two known parents (either two heirlooms or an heirloom and a hybrid) to eliminate the undesirable characteristics and stabilize the desired characteristics.
• Mystery Heirlooms: Some tomatoes just don’t fit any of the aforementioned categories.
What's In A Name?
Heirloom tomatoes have developed a long history over the course of their cultivation.
That said, lots of heirloom tomato names are accompanied by a quirky story. Many heirlooms, like Wapsipinicon Peach and Hungarian Heart, are named after their location of origin. Trucker’s Favorite, a regular-shaped purple-red tomato, was named because it is a strong grower that holds easily in transport.
My personal favorite, Mortgage Lifter, a large pink meaty tomato, was named because the sale of its seeds helped its creator pay off his mortgage.
Why Choose Heirloom Tomatoes?
There are numerous reasons for purchasing or growing your own heirloom tomatoes. Choosing heirloom tomatoes means choosing to benefit the environment, biodiversity, and your health.
Taste The Difference
A final and obvious reason to choose heirloom tomatoes is their delicious taste.
A study of over 150 heirloom tomatoes featuring 170 different volunteers revealed that a tomato’s flavor depends not only on taste, but also on the presence of subtle fragrant compounds. The presence of volatile compounds, especially geranial, enhance a tomato’s overall flavor.
Compared with heirloom varieties, standard tomatoes have less volatile compounds, rendering them bland by comparison. Many argue that today’s modern tomato has had the flavor bred right out of it in favor of perfect size and color. On the other hand, heirloom tomatoes taste like tomatoes. They’re the real deal.