There’s something romantic about heirloom tomatoes. People wax poetic about them, write songs about them, pine for them. That’s one of the reasons I emphasized them when we started growing for market: I figured it was just good business to provide a thing that people say they crave.
Three years later, I understand why it ISN’T good business. Everybody wants “a great tomato.” But most of y’all don’t really know what makes a good tomato, much less a great one. And that basic lack of consumer knowledge is the problem.
You can probably conjure up an image of the perfect heirloom: Bright, unusual colors. Oddly shaped. Firm. Huge. Fragrant. Flawless. The center slices extend beyond the crusts of your tomato sandwich.
Such tomatoes exist — but only briefly, and by briefly I’m not even talking about days. I’m talking about hours.
We grow more than 200 tomato vines a year. Most vines will probably produce between 5 to 10 pounds of fruit, and a few will produce at least twice that amount. I figure we probably “harvest” give or take about thousand pounds over the course of five to six weeks.
But probably a quarter to a third of that “harvest” is just tossed into the woods as soon as it comes off the vine — because we’re non-certified organic. So our tomatoes are under attack from all sorts of things: Bugs, caterpillars, fungi, diseases, blights, squirrels, woodchucks, dogs, coyotes, raccoons. And the varieties we grow are typically prized heirlooms, selected for taste over durability.
By the time we get down to the “marketable heirlooms,” we’re usually talking about no more than a quarter of the harvest. How many of those are “perfect?” It depends on the variety — but the bigger and more irregularly shaped that variety, the less likely perfection becomes.
Even if the pests miss them, a “big ugly” tomato — no matter how beautiful — is doomed to fail. All tomatoes are vulnerable to light and air and temperature and microbes, but the less uniform the structure, the more likely it is to fail in some spot before it reaches perfect ripeness.
Some — miraculously — get to dead ripe fully intact and flawless. But if you succeed in buying that fully ripe, perfect, dream heirloom, you’d better plan on eating it THAT DAY.
Because unlike supermarket tomatoes — which are bred for every trait except taste — a dead-ripe heirloom is going to start deteriorating within hours.
And after talking to customers and retailers and gardeners for the last three years, what I’ve figured out is that most consumers — even tomato lovers — expect their heirlooms to be as perfect, and to last as long, as those cardboard supermarket tomatoes.
You can hardly blame them. Local, organic heirloom tomatoes are so expensive that they’re a luxury item for all but the wealthiest of shoppers.
And, of course, most of y’all buy the wrong tomatoes anyway.
What you really need (for most tomato recipes, anyway) are paste tomatoes.
That’s why we planted no more than 10 vines of any heirloom this year, but grew almost 90 paste tomato plants. And we rarely even offer those for sale — because that harvest is mostly reserved for us, our friends and families.
Love marinara sauce? Picante sauce? Pico de Gallo? Salsa Fresca? All based on simple, unpretentious paste tomatoes. Delicious on their own — but what sends those recipes into the culinary stratosphere is the inclusion of just a few “slicers” for flavor.
Why not sell paste tomatoes? In part because we need so many of them for the things we’ll preserve for later. Depending on the day’s recipe, it takes us between two to five pounds of tomatoes to make one quart of sauce. If you’re buying those retail, that quart of sauce if going to be expensive.
What we learned last year — and we’re benefiting from it even more in 2020 — is that the true value of growing heirloom slicers is the flavor they add to tomato-based sauces, soups and juices. You simply can’t buy commercial products with real heirloom flavor at the grocery. The difference is mind-blowing.
But capturing that flavor means you have to cook with heirlooms. And to preserve the taste of July past the first week of August means you have to can what you cook. And most people just … don’t.
After all, there are all sorts of gourmet prepared Italian sauces you can buy for $5 or $6 a jar. Some of them are quite good, and they’ll stay stable on your shelf for years. Home-preserved tomato sauces are usually good for about a year to 18 months. Why take on the task of cooking and canning your own?
And that’s the story. Americans love heirloom tomatoes, but like most fresh produce, we tend to want them out of season. When we find them for sale, we want them to look perfect and last on the kitchen counter for a few days. When they don’t, and go soft in spots, we feel like we’ve been duped out of $4 — even if the rest of the fruit is firm and delicious.
I made a chicken dish earlier this week that called for a can of tomato paste and a can of diced tomatoes. I substituted about four pounds of fresh heirlooms, which I cooked down to sauce in the skillet. Depending on how you shop, those canned tomatoes would have cost you between $2 and $5 at the grocery.
If you’d substituted fresh but tasteless supermarket tomatoes you’d have paid about $8. And if you’d bought real, in-season fresh heirlooms at some bougie organic fresh market, you’d have paid $12 to $16.
That’s about three to four times what the chicken cost.
Which is why heirloom tomatoes aren’t good business.
Most people don’t understand them.
Most people can’t afford them.
Most people don’t know how to use them.
I know there are plenty of exceptions, and I understand the passion people feel for this mysterious fruit. I share it. But I doubt this basic equation is ever likely to change.
And I’m OK with that.