Heirloom Tomatoes: WTF?

posted by Dave Arnold

Don’t get mad. Everyone I know makes an heirloom tomato salad; but heirloom tomato salad irritates me. A tomato isn’t delicious because it is an old variety or because it comes from a farmer’s market. A tomato is delicious if it tastes good. Many heirloom varieties aren’t very good.

An heirloom worth looking for: Aunt Ruby's German Green. Perfectly ripe. Still Green.  Look for the blush on the bottom.
An heirloom worth looking for: Aunt Ruby's German Green. Perfectly ripe. Still Green. Look for the blush on the bottom.

It is true that most supermarket tomatoes are awful, but there are some supermarket grape and cherry tomatoes that are shipped from afar and taste great all year long—much better than many in-season heirlooms. Are bad local tomatoes better than good shipped ones ?

As a category, what do heirlooms have going for them?  They are old varieties.   Hey, I have a vintage car; it’s a Ford Pinto. No thanks.

Some heirloom tomatoes are absolutely fantastic when grown at the right farm by the right people.  My all-time favorite tomato is Aunt Ruby’s German Green as grown at Stokes Farm in Old Tappan, New Jersey.  I wait for it every year.  This year I wept bitter tears because I was in Italy during the first week of its season.  The Aunt Rubies I’ve had from other farms in the area rate from good to so-so. If legal means of acquisition were not available I’d be willing to go to jail to get my hands on Stokes’. It is important to know both the variety and the farmer.

Aunt Ruby German Green Tomato sliced. See quarter for size reference.
Aunt Ruby German Green Tomato sliced. See quarter for size reference.

Aunt Ruby was an actual person, Ruby Arnold (no relation). She lived in Tennessee and died in 1997 at the age of 82 after passing on her wonderful tomato (and several other good tomatoes, including, some claim, the German Stripe ).  We should all have such a legacy.

Her German green tomatoes are green when ripe with a pinkish red blush on the bottom.  They are large—sometimes over a pound.  They come by their heirloom status honestly.  They are fragile—even slight squeezes and bumps damage them.  They have strange shapes.  They will often go rotten in the field. They also have an intense tomato flavor with an irresistible tartness.  The first time you eat one you can’t believe you’ve got a green tomato. At the market I spend at least half an hour hemming and hawing trying to find ideal specimens at the greenmarket.  Make sure the bottom has the blush—no blush, no sale.  For God’s sake, don’t squeeze the tomato.  The guys at Stoke’s have numerous signs saying that softness is not an indicator of ripeness.  The only indicator of ripeness, they say, is the color—especially the color around the stem end of the tomato, which ripens last.  Instinctively, I don’t believe them.  I check for color AND texture, but not by squeezing.  I get a feeling for texture just by lifting the tomato, ostensibly to check the color on the other side.

Here is my favorite recipe:

As many Aunt Ruby German Green tomatoes from Stokes Farm as you can afford at $4.75 a pound.


Recently Nils and I  used the Aunt Ruby’s German green to make a liquor shot at a Star Chefs workshop.  We blended 35 dollars worth of Aunt Rubies with a couple of pounds of roasted beef and 2 liters of vodka.  We took the pulpy mess and ran it through our rotary evaporator to obtain clear beef and tomato hooch.  I’d be lying if I said people liked it.  But those people had no vision. Nils and I had faith, and knew what to do.  The liquor didn’t taste right because the sugars, acids, and salts needed to balance it hadn’t distilled—they weren’t volatile.  Once we added those back to the liquor it was, to our taste, pretty cool.  I wouldn’t serve it as a sipping drink or in mixed cocktails, but it served admirably as a short-shot accompaniment to our vacuum infused tuna sinew cooked a la plancha. Oh yeah.

4 thoughts on “Heirloom Tomatoes: WTF?

  1. The thing about heirloom tomatoes is, even if that variety is not all that great, you know that it’s going to have some sort of flavor. With a beefsteak tomato, you’re 98% sure that it was shipped from Bulgaria (or wherever). With heirloom, you’re at least as certain that it was not. So it’s a quick shortcut for people to say, “Hey, heirloom. That should be good.”

    As people get more used to having and using heirlooms, they’ll start picking varieties that they know they like. Of course, articles like this should help.

  2. It definitely looks amazing, I have never seen such a thing like that, let me rephrase it , i have never seen a tomato like such.
    We used to have here in new zealand a very funny type of tomato which was called Tigrella tomatoes.
    They were quite interesting, green with red stripes not only in the outside but all the way through .
    Taste wasnt as good as its looks. But in the other hand nothing like fresh new season trussed tomatoes.

  3. The problem with supermarket tomatoes is that they are specifically grown and produced because a) they look uniform; b) they are usually disease resistant; c) they are blemish-free and d) they are prolific and hence good value for money. They are not produced for flavour only for huge profits. Flavour is the least of the supermarkets’ worries.
    Heirloom Tomatoes on the other hand are not uniform, they have poor disease resistance, they have blemishes and marks and sometimes you don’t get many to the vine, making them not cost-effective. But what they lack in what the supermarkets want is made up a hundred-fold by the exquisite flavours you can get. Grape-flavoured Snow White Tomatoes; watermelon flavoured German Red Strawberry Tomatoes, not to mention the extraordinary tastes of the Moldovan Green tomato or the Red Grape Sugar Plum.
    What you won’t get with heirloom tomatoes are tough columellas (the centre bit of the tomato that stays hard if picked when under-ripe and then artificially ripened -this is what supermarkets do), soggy bread when you slice one up to put in a sandwich or some tasteless, sour tough old piece of fruit more fit for mending shoes than eating on a salad.
    Of course, the biggest difference that most people notice though is price. But then as they say, you really do get what you pay for…

  4. It’s true not all taste good, but people growing heirlooms tend to let them reach full ripeness before picking, which means they’ll have the best chance of good flavour. One of the reasons supermarket tomatoes are blander is they are picked underripe. But some are okay. They tend to be very expensive, though.

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