Heirloom Tomatoes Growing in Popularity

“People are looking for a food that has more taste and is offering more nutritionally, that’s the draw for most people. People like the fact organic heirloom tomatoes are different. Even though they’re ugly (whole), they’re prettier on a plate.” – Kate Poirier
Shiloh’s Garden heirloom tomatoes
Shiloh’s Garden’s chemical- and pesticide-free heirloom tomatoes booth at a local farmers market.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while heirloom tomatoes may have a face only a tomato aficionado could love, it’s their colors and flavors that make them favorites in the kitchen.

“If they’re not ugly, you’re not doing it right,” said Russ Poirier, co-owner of Shiloh’s Garden in Brethren. Yet, Poirier’s wife Kate is quick to tout the attributes of heirloom tomatoes.

“People are looking for a food that has more taste and is offering more nutritionally, that’s the draw for most people. People like the fact organic heirloom tomatoes are different. Even though they’re ugly (whole), they’re prettier on a plate,” she said.

So, what exactly makes a tomato an heirloom? The seeds have been saved year after year and stored for the next planting season, sometimes traded, gifted or sold. Some
varieties, such as Cherokee Purple, named for the Cherokee tribes that grew the tomatoes and retained the seeds, date to the 1800s. Biting into a Cherokee Purple tomato is biting into a piece of history.

From the outside, a Cherokee Purple tomato may not have the eye appeal of a robust, traditional red tomato. Its skin is mottled brown and purple and its shape is often imperfect. The magic lies within. Slicing into the tomato reveals the beauty beneath the skin, both in presentation and flavor. The inner tomato is a luscious, deep red and the flavor makes this variety among the most popular of the heirloom set: It’s sweet, only minimally acidic and has a hint of smoky flavor.

Other popular heritage varieties include the Black Beauty, touted as the world’s darkest tomato. Its eye-catching color has attracted so many customers that Kate is able to save very few for herself. The Orange Russian tomato, Kate’s own favorite, is a must-have in her kitchen. 

“I love Orange Russian, it’s heart-shaped and it’s orange,” she said. “It’s meaty, has very few seeds, is very sweet and not high in acid. I slice an Orange Russian to put on a sandwich or in a salad.

Assortment of heirloom tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes come in various shapes, sizes and colors, including yellow and orange.

Katie Romence, an owner of Romence Gardens in Grand Rapids, said heirloom tomatoes are fast growing in popularity. Her own preference is varieties of cherry or grape tomatoes, which she likes for grilling, yet she opts for Black Krim, Cherokee Purple or Brandywine heirloom varieties when preparing other meals, including salads.

“There’s a fresher flavor, they’re juicier, a little tangier,” Romence explained. “I like the Black Krim; it’s a dark, purple tomato. The skin isn’t very thick and has a richer flavor; when you slice it, it’s really pretty.”

This year, Romence decided to try San Marzano tomatoes, which are commonly used for sauces. San Marzano tomatoes are an Italian heirloom variety with a meaty, less juicy consistency, allowing for a heartier sauce. Yet, with the lure of heirloom tomatoes being partly their variety of colors, she likes to mix colors of tomatoes when making sauces.

 “I can make sauce out of different-colored tomatoes. It can be very interesting. Using yellow and orange tomatoes, you get an interesting color, and if you add white, the color is even more interesting,” Romence said.

Grand Rapids homemaker Trisha Robrahn began growing and cooking with heirloom tomatoes after her oldest daughter saw the seeds at a local nursery. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Robrahn has since grown not just heirloom tomatoes, but heirloom vegetables like lettuce and beans. The other appeal for a mother of three, ages 10, 7 and 4, is that her kids like the unorthodox hues and will pick and eat the tomatoes right in the garden.

“My kids are more apt to eat it if it doesn’t look conventional,” Robrahn said. “I would have to say the green beans in all different colors are one of our favorites. The kids like to eat them straight off the plant. A favorite tomato would be the Yellow Pear. They’re slightly bigger than cherry tomatoes, but they’re shaped like pears.”

Yellow Pear tomatoes have a rich history as well as a rich flavor. First recorded as being grown in the United States in 1847, the seeds were gathered and taken to western states including Utah and Colorado where they continued to be grown. The small size and sweet flavor of this tomato make it popular for grilling or using in salads.

The attraction of heirloom tomatoes is more than the colors and shapes. It’s the true flavor of each tomato. “An heirloom tomato tastes like a tomato is supposed to taste,” Robrahn said.

Julie Williams is an award-winning poet and a professor at Grand Valley State University.

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