"I really don't eat another tomato between my last one picked in say September and the first one picked in June unless they're canned, sun-dried or preserved in some way," says Craig LeHoullier, author of Epic Tomatoes. "The tomatoes off-season? People are doing a wonderful job improving them, but they're still not the same."
LeHoullier also serves as tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You talk about 35 years of growing and tasting 1,000 different tomatoes. What is it about the tomato? What got you hooked?
Craig LeHoullier: It really goes back to my love of gardening that was instilled in me when I was very, very young by my dad and my grandfather. That took me through to maybe right around when I was married to my wife, Susan, in 1980. The first thing we decided to do was have our own garden.
Of course, the tomatoes that grew in that garden were Better Boys. Back in 1980, the Seed Savers Exchange hadn't really become well known enough to induce people to grow all these incredibly wonderful colors, shapes and sizes that have been kept all over the world for years and years. When I joined the Seed Savers in '86, not only my gardening life changed, but also my life changed because then tomatoes of every hue of the rainbow would decorate our tables and adorn our recipes. Nothing has been the same since, Lynne, to tell you the truth.
LRK: You mentioned the Better Boy. I think that's a descendant of the Big Boy. Was it Big Boy?
CLH: Big Boy, yes.
LRK: It was the first hybrid?
LRK: For gardeners, this was pretty important because it meant disease resistance. As a test, you grew hybrids and some heirlooms side by side. What came out of the test?
CLH: As a scientist in a pharmaceutical company, I do have this laboratory approach to things. Part of it is I love folklore, but I want to prove to myself what happened.
I was reading the catalog: "You need to grow hybrids if you were to have yield and success." I said, "That sounds like a challenge to me." So I pulled some great-sounding heirlooms out of the Seed Savers catalog and grew them side by side. In a 3-year time period of growing maybe over 100 types, I convinced myself that hybrids are really good.
Heirlooms can be really great. You get the added distinctiveness of the colors and the nuances. It's almost like wine tasting when you can start picking up all of the individuality, the characteristics that each specific tomato holds. Once you start down this road -- it's not a bug that hits everyone, but for those who really get it, there's no end to it. You just end up on a lifelong quest to grow everything you can get your hands on.
(Photo: Excerpted from Epic Tomatoes © Craig LeHoullier. Photography by © Stephen L. Garrett. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.)
LRK: In the 30 years that you've been growing those tomatoes, and especially since maybe the 1990s, there has been such an amazing change in the way we approach what we eat in the U.S. We question so much, we demand things that we didn't demand before, like flavor. I wonder if it was the heirloom tomato that ushered in this change or deeply influenced it? This was a sexy fruit that everybody responds positively to. I wonder if we could say that was one of the things that really started people thinking about how their food is grown, biodiversity and demanding better fruit?
CLH: I'll add some words to that: history, stories and community. The tomato is actually the perfect storm of nostalgia. We'd get in the car with our parents or grandparents, take a drive, stop at a farm stand and grab tomatoes. The tomatoes, the heirlooms particularly, come with stories.
In 1990, when I was fortunate to be sent the tomato that I later named Cherokee Purple, that kicked off the black tomato craze. We've seen, since the '90s, different colors come in. Now we've got this cornucopia of all colors and flavors. People do demand that excellence. They'll pay premiums at restaurants for heirloom tomato plates.
We have to remember it is a seasonal vegetable. One of the challenges in America is that we are very accustomed to having every fruit and vegetable 365 days a year. To get the absolute excellence of tomatoes, it's kind of like strawberries, blueberries, these fleeting moments. That's why I really don't eat another tomato between my last one picked in say September and the first one picked in June unless they're canned, sun-dried or preserved in some way. The tomatoes off-season? People are doing a wonderful job improving them, but they're still not the same. They're very perishable.
LRK: But I think some of the best things in life have to be fragile. We appreciate them more.
Indigo Rose (Photo: kightp / Flickr)
LRK: What are you working on now and what do you see as the future in the world of tomatoes?
CLH: In the future, we're going to go through the fads of the interesting colors. Right now we're starting to see the wonderful stripes that are coming out of Wild Boar Farms in California and other amateur breeders. We're seeing the blue pigment getting worked into tomatoes. From a wild tomato that had a dark blue pigment, Indigo Rose is one of the varieties. It's not blue so much as a dark blueberry-ish purple where the sun shines on it. They're still working on the flavors, but those are fads.
Where I think they have to go is that heirlooms don't become something ethereal, something that just show up on plates at restaurants. But we embed in the country the need to save seeds, to tell the stories. The Seed Savers came along at a perfect time 40 years ago. Their work is going to be never done. But how can we all help them? How can we identify the young people who are going to be really into gardening and growing tomatoes and seed saving? They are going to be sitting in this seat in 20 or 30 or 40 years. So that we can maintain this incredible heritage that we have been blessed with, that we can partake of right now.
LeHoullier's Favorite Tomatoes
1. Sun Gold
Sun Gold (Photo: photofarmer / Flickr)
CLH: It's a hybrid that first came out in probably the late '80s. I would love to have a picture album of the faces of everyone and the expressions they made when they tasted their first fully ripened Sun Gold. Because really no other tomato has the unique set of flavor characteristics. They wind up in a lot of our recipes. Lidia [Bastianich] of Lidia's Italy makes a pesto trapanese; we use Sun Gold. It is a cherry tomato pesto that's to die for. It has toasted almonds, basil and garlic.
2. Cherokee Purple
Cherokee Purple (Photo: Muy Yum / Flickr)
CLH: When you name a tomato, you don't really think anything of that moment except it needs a name, I know the story and you send it to be shared. To be able to walk around a farmers market anywhere in the country and see that tomato is a surreal, unbelievable experience. It just happens to taste really darn good.
3. Lillian's Yellow Heirloom
CLH: They average 1 to 1 1/4 pounds and are the color of a canary. Lillian's would have to rank as the best-tasting large tomato I have ever eaten. That's really saying a lot, I think.