In the summer of 2010, shortly after food columnist Michael Pollan had a tomato named in his honor, our host made note of it on the radio and offered her congratulations. Those congratulations were sincere, but there was a hint of delight when she noted that Pollan's variety was a green "odd-shaped mutant" that was "possibly susceptible to blossom end rot."
Lynne Rossetto Kasper's message was clear: She was green with envy.
June 2010 tomato tasting
That's when we heard from Joseph Tychonievich, a grad student in Michigan studying plant breeding and genetics. He had been working on a tomato that crossed Matt's Wild Cherry and Black Krim, "combining intense sweetness with the deep, rich, complex flavor I associate with the big heirloom beefsteak varieties," he said. And he wanted to name it Lynne Rossetto Kasper.
Even better, Tychonievich wanted to incorporate Kasper's personal taste into the final product. So 22 fruits showed up in the mail, and a live taste test determined the target. It was cherry No. 12, which Kasper called "a waltz. This is a soft, blowzy, hot summer night -- kind of smooth and suave."
Not everyone agreed. Tychonievich said the results were mixed -- even that "one of my friends actually HATES the one Lynne picked." But the goal was not to create the Joseph's Hater Friend Tomato; it was to create one in the image of Kasper.
And that's what the past 3 years were about: narrowing and focusing the offspring of that cross to consistently produce the taste that was desired.
In an email interview, Tychonievich explained how he knew it was ready and what we should expect from this new breed. If the science is not thorough enough for you, his new book, Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener, goes much more in-depth on the tweezer-heavy sex life of plants.
Andy Kruse: We know when Lynne entered your plan, but how long had you been working on this cross before she became your inspiration?
Joseph Tychonievich: I was growing the two parent plants in 2008, which is when I made the first cross. Normally, to maintain a variety like Black Krim, you make sure it pollinates with itself or another Black Krim plant. Instead, I crossed the two varieties with each other.
In 2009, I planted out the seeds from that cross. In the first generation, each seedling gets exactly half its genes from one parent and half from the other parent, so they are all the same. I saved seeds from THOSE plants and grew them in 2010 to get the second generation. In the second generation, you get all different combinations of the genes of the two parents so that each seedling is wildly different, producing all the variations that Lynne got to taste.
AK: What does it mean to cross two plants? At what stage in their growth cycle does this happen? What tools do you use and what do you physically do to them?
JT: Crossing, to be blunt, is making the two plants have sex with each other. Flowers are plants' naughty bits, so when the plants were in bloom, I used tweezers to move pollen from Matt's Wild Cherry (the father of the cross) and put it on the flowers of Black Krim (the mother of the cross).
AK: When you breed, do you have a specific goal, or is it trial and error? Can you target desirable properties, or do you just pick the ones that turned out the best and do more of those?
JT: Sometimes I have specific goals; sometimes I just see what happens. In this case, I LOVE both of the parent varieties, but they are very different, so I was curious about what flavors I might get.
In other cases, I have a specific goal. For example, sometimes I cross a flavor I like with another variety that has so-so flavor but grows very well for me. Or, I could cross two exceptionally sweet varieties to get one that is even sweeter.
AK: What has happened to the taste of No. 12 since the tasting in 2010?
JT: The tomato that Lynne tasted was like a mutt, and the babies of the next generation were not quite the same. I've been turning it into a purebred variety that will be the same each time we plant seeds.
The way you do that with tomatoes is inbreeding. Most plants, unlike animals, are both male and female, so I can have it have sex with itself. So each year, I've been having it self-pollinate (which is actually what tomatoes do naturally anyway). With each generation you do this, the amount of variation drops by half. At this point, the plants are pretty uniform, so I'm calling them finished.
With each generation, I've tried to maintain the flavor, but a little drift is inevitable. The final result will be a little different but hopefully not significantly so.
AK: What size will the fruits be this harvest?
JT: They're cherry tomatoes, but on the large size for a cherry. Maybe 3/4 of an inch to 1 inch in diameter.
One of Tychonievich's greenhouses at work
AK: What is this tomato best for? Eating whole? Sauce? Drying?
JT: They're perfect to eat fresh on a salad or out of hand. I particularly love throwing them whole in the oven and roasting them with other vegetables. A cookie sheet of them with peppers and onions roasted and then tossed over pasta is quite delightful.
My FAVORITE way to eat them, however, is to take tortilla chips (those little scoop-shape ones work best) and lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. I put a bit of fresh basil, cheese and one tomato on each chip, then run it all under the broiler until the cheese is melted and the tomatoes are hot. They're amazing. The tomatoes sort of burst in your mouth and are a wonderful contrast to the salty crunch of the chips. Theoretically, I'd use them as finger food at a party, but mostly I just make a whole pan and eat it all myself.
AK: How do you track the lineage of your plants? (My father-in-law breeds sheep and has a custom piece of software that plots out the family tree of every animal in the barn.) Do you keep thorough records like that or just wing it?
JT: I don't do a family tree, but I do keep a big document on the computer where I record the crosses I make each year and notes on the results.
[Ed. note: We tried to get a peek at this document, but Tychonievich shut us down. "It is full of confidential information," he said. "Professional plant breeding is pretty competitive, and sorting out the things I don't mind making public from the more exciting stuff would be a nightmare." Oh well.]
AK: How rare is this plant? Does anyone have anything like it? Is there a good chance someone else has crossed these two things and not liked the result? Or just never bothered to name it?
JT: It is possible that someone else has made this cross but very unlikely. Black Krim is a very old variety, but Matt's Wild Cherry was only brought into cultivation relatively recently. With the thousands of tomatoes out there, there are almost infinite crosses that could be made. If someone else made the cross, there is little chance they would have picked out a similar variety. There was a LOT of variation, and everyone I had taste it liked a different one.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper inspects her plants the day they arrive. (Framing this picture with James Beard Awards in the background was purely coincidental.)
AK: What does it mean for a tomato to be named? Is there a national registry? Is there a scientific name, too?
JT: Some groups of plants have formal registries that are widely used, but there isn't a widely used one for tomatoes. Putting a name on a variety is like naming a recipe or something. I created it, so I can just call it whatever I want. Sometimes variety names change with time because the original name gets forgotten and someone ends up sticking a new one on it.
AK: [closed circuit to me] What trick can you tell me that will help me outgrow my co-workers? We're competing to make the most of the plants you sent and it's very important that I win.
JT: Black plastic. If you are growing them in the ground, get black plastic mulch. Usually you'd stretch this over the soil first, then punch a small hole in it and plant the tomato through that hole. Tomatoes adore heat, and the black absorbs the heat of the sun and warms the air above it and the soil below. This is how all commercial growers do tomatoes (and peppers and such) here in Michigan, and the plants get nearly twice as big with that treatment as without.