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Tomato Tasting in Carmel

As a kid, I thought tomatoes were terrifying. They felt soft and creepy when ripe, were visually intimidating once sliced, and their harsh flavor—acidic and salty—didn't jibe with the mushy blandness that usually characterizes kid food (or certainly did mine).

But at 18 I spent a summer working on a dairy farm in Waitsfield, Vermont, and the farmer and his wife, Otis and Elsie Wallis—neither of whom had left the place for a single day in 28 years—grew and served their own vegetables. They induced me to sample their glistening backyard tomatoes at lunch one day by suggesting a sprinkling of sugar on the slices, and I instantly converted from phobe to phile. I don't remember the name of the variety, but I started requesting them at every meal (well, not breakfast). This was my introduction to heirlooms, and it wasn't long before I realized they needed no extra sweetness.

Today, American hilltops and vegetable gardens are aflame with them. After decades in which innovative shipping triumphed over the yearnings of the nation's taste buds, the authentic, undoctored love apple is slowly but decisively making its way back onto the tables of those who, like me, collapse in ecstasy over a single mouthful of the juicy, vibrant, luscious fruit that tastes like no other—and certainly not like the bulletproof pallid handballs that are wrapped in plastic and tossed like concrete blocks into most of our supermarkets.

Technically, an heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated fruit whose genealogy predates 1940 and is grown from the same single variety of seed year after year. A hybrid is a tomato produced by crossbreeding the seeds of two varieties. While hybrids are often superior in uniformity of size, resistance to rough handling, and predictability, they're almost invariably inferior in flavor.

After Vermont, I searched England, France, and the wilds of Ohio (during various stages of my education and employment) for two decades but couldn't find anything resembling the Wallises' homegrowns. Some French samples came close—particularly one round, red, sweetly acidic variety called the Dona—but most were more refined and less down-to-earth, and lust, not refinement, is what heirloom tomatoes are about. It took a serendipitous drive through the mountains of Alleghany County, North Carolina, on Route 21 between Sparta and Roaring Gap in the summer of '83, to reinvigorate my obsession. At a roadside stand, a grocer named Grady offered me a slice of an heirloom called the German Johnson. It was naturally sweeter than anything I'd sugared in Vermont, with a rush of salt and richness unavailable in its French counterpart, and its sensual texture burst in my mouth like liquid rubies.

I ate German Johnsons every day till I returned home to Santa Monica, where I proceeded to search every farmers' market for them. I was introduced to delectable Green Zebras, Dagma's Perfection, and Boxcar Willies—names as colorful as racehorses'!—but never found a German Johnson. When I moved back to New York, where I grew up, the results were worse: no one had even heard of them. I began to think they were something Grocer Grady grew illegally in his bathtub, like gin.

I was a man on a mission. I chased down tomato celebrations in New Orleans; Bradley County, Arkansas (nicknamed the Land of the Tall Pines and Pink Tomatoes, where you can revel in not only the local pinks but also alligator-on-a-stick); and all of Virginia. Finally, up in Minot, North Dakota, I learned that the most lavishly produced lycopenic extravaganza in the country would occur early in September in idyllic Carmel, California, onetime political domain of Clint Eastwood (the former Carmel mayor is now a big landowner in the valley) and one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

Called TomatoFest, the annual observance promised 90 tomato salsas; tomato dishes from 55 chefs; 100 wines; olive oils from eight countries; music; dancing; and 350 varieties of tomatoes. Surely somewhere in there would be a German Johnson.

"We need to educate the markets," Gary Ibsen, the white-bearded and unruffleable founder of TomatoFest, told me. "Tomatoes should be picked ripe, but then they only last five days. Problem is, big companies buy them unripe, ship them unripe so they'll last longer. And they're tasteless."

Ibsen organized the TomatoFest 14 years ago because he loves the fruit—he currently runs a seed company with hundreds of varieties of tomatoes (all of them organic, of course). "The first year, we had fifty or so people. Tomorrow, you'll see, there will be three thousand, and we'll have to turn lots away." The net profits go to children's charities. "I love having kids there. I tell them, 'Save your seeds! Make your own tomatoes! Treat them like a pet!'"

His favorites are the Paul Robeson (so named not simply because it's black, but because it's black and also Russian, and Russians greatly admired Robeson), Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, the Flammé (from France), and the Green Zebra. I asked about the German Johnson. He grew thoughtful. "I might have a plant," he said. "I've got more than 500 types out there, so I'm not sure." I didn't want to think about it, for fear of disappointment. Instead, I let him get some rest for the gala the following day and went out for a fine meal at the superlative Bernardus Lodge a few miles away.

At 10 on the morning of the TomatoFest, a sea of white tents covered the driving and putting range at Quail Lodge—the immense resort on whose grounds thousands of tomatoes would soon appear—like a circus come to town. Chefs, vintners, olive oilers, and vendors set up booths for food tastelets. A small line began forming at the gate.

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