Tomatoes. Nothing but tomatoes, as far as the eye could see. There were big tomatoes that filled a palm. There were tiny tomatoes the size of a pinky fingernail. Ones with the palest tint of green to rich, deep reds that were nearly black.
And the names, which conjured stories in my head: Mortgage Lifter Radiator Charlie, Midas, Spears Tennessee Green. The tales the names of these heirloom varieties might tell are nearly as interesting as the story of Tomatopalooza, an annual celebration of wonderful tomatoes and those who love them, especially one crazy guy.
The host, organizer and Tomato Man is Craig LeHoullier, who started out as an average RTP chemist, but became entranced by tomatoes. Specifically, heirloom varieties of tomatoes – ones that are old, rare and in need of protection and propagation. These varieties existed before we felt the need to ship ‘maters across the country and eat them in January. The resulting breeding rush to create an indestructible tomato made supermarket tomatoes into flavorless red blobs. And nearly wiped out the old heirlooms.
The flavors of heirlooms are exquisite and varied, but they are a fleeting delight. As tomatoes should be, I say. Give me a brief encounter with a Green Zebra or Cherokee Purple over those ever-available red tennis balls anytime.
Now, Craig seeks out, grows and sells plants, and works on research concerning heirloom tomatoes. You can read more about his projects here. The sixth annual Tomatopalooza, held July 26, united those of like mind and similarly stained shirts from around the country, all to taste tomatoes and, perhaps, pick up a few seeds to sprout for next summer.
It was hard to believe that the dozens of varieties I tasted there were all tomatoes, the shapes, sizes, hues and flavors were so different.
I like a good acid edge to a tomato, and the Anna Banana Russian had a lemon color and flavor I enjoyed. Because of my love of tartness, I went for the green-when-ripe offerings, like the Spears Tennessee Green, which usually are highest in acid flavor. Green Zebra is one kind that’s become somewhat popular in farmers markets and some supermarkets.
Purple Haze, a large cherry tomato with a green-purple color, tasted like plums. Some small tomatoes, called Blue, were – there was a navy blush around the stem end of the red fruit.
Tasters were encouraged to vote for the tomatoes that they thought tasted best, but that was impossible for me. The balanced sweetness of the Rasp Red? The citrus zing of the Anna Banana? I just wanted to eat them all, because it will be hard to find tomatoes with flavors like these again.
Only one problem with the event. People brought brownies and salads and other such things to eat besides the stars of the show, but where was the bacon and mayo? By the end of the day, I was crying for a BLT.
Go out now, during the height of BLT season, and seek heirlooms, ask your favorite market to stock them, plan where to put a plant in your yard next summer. Once you try a bite, there’s no going back to those cottony red things.