Respect for the heirloom tomato's path from dirt to table is long overdue. As we worry more about seafood from China and what else is in that can besides green beans, a lusty cheer bursts forth when we find that fresh food actually tastes like, well, food.
But heirlooms do more than add flavor to our lives -- they offer a connection to history and family. Like jewlery or sterling silver tableware, the seeds are lovingly passed down through generations. And as people argue whether "heirloom" means a seed that's 100 years old, 50 years old or born in 1945 at the end of World War II, they're missing the point.
The real story with heirlooms is the people behind the seeds.
Heirloom names like Box Car Willie (for the Country musician) and Cosmonaut Volkov (a famous Russian cosmonaut who died while landing) connect the fruit to culture and history. Other names, like Eva's Purple Ball, are more fanciful and encourage me to indulge my imagination about this Eva person, picturing her in purple silks at a Southern cotillion.
Others, like the Mortgage Lifter, tell tales of the cultivators. As the story goes, M.C. Byles (aka Radiator Charlie) developed this variety. When Byles' radiator business slumped during the Depression, he sold the tomatoes for a dollar per plant to pay off his mortgage, touting to his customers that each plant could feed a family of six. At the sky-high price of $1 per plant, ol' Radiator Charlie paid off his house in just four years.
My favorite, the Cherokee Purple, was given to J. D. Green of Tennessee who said he got it from his neighbor who got it from the Cherokee Indians 100 years ago. Who knows if there's a lick of truth in J.D.'s tale, but it doesn't matter.
As my husband wonders how I'm going to eat all the tomatoes on the kitchen table, I cradle a massive, mishapen Cherokee Purple before delicately slicing into the soft, juicy flesh beneath the thick, dusty pink skin. Images of Cherokees hunting river otters in Tsiyaha in the late summer invade my brain as I place the warm heaviness of the fruit against my teeth.
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