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.
By 11, the queue had trebled to nearly a hundred people and was being serenaded by a barbershop quartet. The tent from the Hullaballoo Restaurant turned out fried green tomatoes for those on line: firm, unripe heirlooms of several varieties, sliced a quarter-inch thick, then dipped in cornmeal, flour, and Cajun spices and sautéed in olive oil and butter. Yum.
By 12:30—the official opening time—the line stretched to the length of two or three city blocks. The gates opened, and it was as if somebody had shot a starting gun for Conestogas racing west in pursuit of free land. Repeat visitors knew that the food usually vanished after an hour, so they scrambled to the three chefs' tents. The wine and beer would last a few hours longer.
"We prepared a thousand of these," the chef from Christopher's on Lincoln in Carmel said of his tomato shooters (a shot glass of tomato water garnished with a shrimp and a morsel of lobster on a long toothpick), "and they'll be gone in an hour." Of the many tomato-themed delectables, the salmon-and-salsa taco and the heirloom-tomato sushi roll may have edged out the crab and heirloom-confit napoleon and the tomato tarte Tatin.
And the colors and contours! At the tent labeled FARMERS' MARKET, baskets and baskets overflowed with thousands of reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, greens, purples, whites; some tomatoes were cherry-sized, some elongated like Romas, others big-shouldered or squat or stretch-marked or bumpy and lumpy; some shaped like globes, others like golf balls, teardrops, even cylinders—I wanted to dive right into them.
After about two hours, Ibsen found me. He was completely relaxed, despite the crowds swarming the grounds. Tomatoes must contain not only lycopene but Zoloft. "Did you see it?" he said.
"See what?" I asked. Thus far I'd been scuttering around trying to eat all 55 chefs' creations and test all 90 salsas—and sip the 100 wines on offer (also part of the $85 ticket). He pointed to the tent marked TOMATO TASTING.
"You'd better have a look," he said enigmatically. My heart beat faster, and I hurried under the tent flaps.
Nearly 350 varieties of tomato, samples of each chopped into quarter-inch dice and labeled, filled tables inside the tent. I inched along with the crowd from variety to variety, tasting every one, till I reached about 110. My shorts began to shrink and it became increasingly difficult to see my feet. But I pressed on...130...150...170....
And then...I saw it. Perched on a cup was the hunched, high-shouldered jewel, striated pink and deep red, with the label, GERMAN JOHNSON. Ibsen had found it! With some trepidation—how could this compare to the orange Earl of Edgecombe I'd just tasted, or the Purple Calabash?Could this California German J possibly equal Alleghany County's, or would it, like other childhood totems—Cream of Wheat, vanilla custard—be no match for my memory of it?How could it stand up to the more than 170 heirlooms I'd already sampled?I lanced the German Johnson chunk with a toothpick. Mmmmm, it was good...watery...juicy...sugary...I speared another cube, then another, and...
...as a fellow North Carolinian wrote, "You can't go home again." No question, that German Johnson was a superb tomato. But whether because of the California soil and clime, my snoozing taste buds, or the naughty trickery of memory, it wasn't quite what I remembered. Perhaps I'd lacked tomato experience back in 1983, for now the red Brandywine OTV, the Black Ethiopian, and Ed's Fat Plum just seemed more saturated with tomato-ness and held together better. And one called the Amish Paste became my palate's new German Johnson. It was intense but not single-minded, complex with fruit and salt and sugar, not too watery but lushly wet. Perhaps the German Johnson had been my starter tomato.
I didn't tell Ibsen, of course. He'd gone to such trouble. Later that afternoon, while the tents were being collapsed and packed up, he sighed with some relief. He had four weeks off before he'd have to start planning next year's festival. We kicked back. He looked serene. "My favorite way of eating a tomato is to sit on the ground, feel the moisture in the air, the fragrance of the leaves...take a bite, watch things fly around in the sky, and I'm in heaven."
TOMATOFEST, Carmel, Calif.; 800/965-4827; www.tomatofest.com; September 11.
From beauty pageants to food fights, the humble fruit is celebrated in many ways. Below, a few more noteworthy festivals here and abroad.
Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival
All-tomato luncheon, and Miss Pink Tomato and Miss Petite Pink Tomato beauty contests. Warren, Ark.; 870/226-5225; pinktomato2.homestead.com; June.
Great Tomato Festival
Tomato picnic and Dixieland jazz. Minot, N. Dak.; 701/857-8206; www.visitminot.org; August 24.
Pittston Tomato Festival
A stateside version of the high jinks at Spain's La Tomatina (see below). Pittston, Pa.; 570/655-1424; www.pittstontomatofestival.com; August 1821.
Thomas Jefferson's Tomatoe Faire
Displays of horticulture, awarding of ribbons, tomato sandwiches. Lynchburg, Va.; 434/384-8317; www.hcmga.com; August 6.
The most bizarre—and messiest—festival takes place in this small Valencia town, which hosts what must be the world's biggest annual food fight, using 276,000 pounds of tomatoes. Buñol, Spain; 34/963-986-422; www.lahoya.net/tomatina.com; August 31.
Most restaurants worth their salt will have heirloom tomatoes on the menu in season. Here are some of our favorites:
Top Tomato Macerated heirloom tomatoes with basil airfilled ravioli and licorice root. 1723 N. Halsted St., Chicago; 312/867-0110; dinner for two $150.
Top TomatoTop Tomato Tasty summer fruit paired with soft-shell crab and pesto butter. 818 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.; 202/331-8118; dinner for two $110.
The Loft at Montage Resort & Spa
Top Tomato Heirloom tomato soup with a trio of grilled cheese sandwiches. 30801 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, Calif.; 949/715-6420; dinner for two $120.
Marinus at Bernardus Lodge
Top Tomato Vegetable-stuffed heirlooms with white-bean dressing. 415 Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, Calif.; 831/658-3595; dinner for two $150.
Payard Patisserie & Bistro
Top Tomato Coach Farm goat-cheese salad with Eckerton Hill tomatoes from Pennsylvania. 1032 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y.; 212/717-5252; dinner for two $90.