Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tomato Varieties

By Nicole Sugerman

I thought I wouldn’t get to write this article. I thought I would curse our blighted tomatoes by glowing about their exceptional, unique varieties, taunting you shareholders with their glories only to have them all dead by the second or third week. But the tomatoes are holding on. So I think that it’s high time that I told you all about each wonderful variety. As Nina explained in an article about heirlooms about a month ago, all of our tomatoes are very old varieties passed down outside of the realm of commercial production. They have been selected for taste, uniqueness, and beauty—not uniformity, durability, or the ability to last a long time while being shipped, like their commercial counterparts. Heirloom tomatoes are notoriously fussy. They virtually crack on touch, and smush if you look at them too hard. However, they taste so good that they more than make up for their faults. I have been spoiled by heirloom tomatoes to the extent that, not only am I completely uninterested in eating tomatoes out of season, but I am not even interested in eating a non-heirloom tomato in the summertime. It just doesn’t seem like a tomato. So, here are all the tomato varieties we growing this summer:

Brandywine: This is a perpetual favorite. Large, dark pink tomato. Grows on “potato-type” vines, meaning the leaves look more like potato leaves (round lobes) than traditional tomato leaves. Brandywine tomatoes were introduced into current popularity by a Vermonter named Ben Quisenberry in 1982. He claimed to have gotten his seed from a woman named Dorris, who had the seed in her family for over 80 years. Burpee introduced a very similar variety in the 1880s, but no one is sure whether this is the same tomato. It is native to the Brandywine River Valley.

Cherokee Purple- a deep, dark, purple with green shoulders. I think Cherokee Purple is the sweetest tomato. People believe that this tomato traces back 120 years to the Cherokees in the area around Tennessee.

Mule team- Large, classically red tomato. According to the Ohio Historical Center, it has been in production since 1856.

Pineapple- Yellow with red mottling. One of the largest tomatoes we grow. I cannot find any information on its origins, except that it is an American heirloom, and maybe is from Kentucky.

Valencia- Smallish, deep orange tomato. A family heirloom from Maine. Some think it is called ‘Valencia’ because it looks like a Valencia orange, others think it is from Valencia, Spain.

Zapotec Pink Ribbed- Very unusual pink pleated tomato. Mild flavor. Supposedly from the Zapotecs in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Giant Belgium- Very large and pink. I have trouble distinguishing it from the Brandywine. Introduced in the 1930s in Ohio.

Giant Zebra- Green and yellow striped tomato. This tomato is very contentious. Many seed companies and growers categorize it as an heirloom, but it was bred in 1983, whereas many people who think about such things stipulate that ‘heirlooms’ are defined as vegetables bred before the 1940’s, which marked the onset of industrial agriculture with the beginning of World War 2. We used to debate the definition of heirloom with respect to the zebra a fair amount last season. This tomato has a very devoted following.

Paul Robeson- Dusky red with green shoulders. Looks very similar to the Cherokee, but redder and less sweet. This is a Russian heirloom, introduced into the U.S. by a seed saver in Moscow. It’s named for operatic singer Paul Robeson, advocate for equal rights for Blacks, who was apparently very popular in the Soviet Union.

Moonglow- Bright orange fruit. A little larger than Valencia. I cannot find any information on its origin.

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