Nestled next to the round, bright red varieties we're used to seeing piled high in the supermarket, heirloom tomatoes are becoming more and more common. Perhaps you've seen them but never really knew what they were. Sometimes gnarled and dark purple, sometimes bright green striped with yellow and the size of a golf ball, sometimes a fleshy pink color and slightly flattened with extra curves and lobes: These are heirloom tomatoes. And as unique as their individual exteriors are, each also has a flavor all its own, with varying sweetness and acidity unlike any year-round hothouse hybrid.
But what makes a tomato an heirloom?
Surprisingly, the answer is more difficult to nail down than one would think, although the concept is fairly simple to understand. At a Tomato Fest dinner in Chicago last year, Rink DaVie of Shooting Star Farm was asked to define what an heirloom tomato is. He responded, "Well, I'll take a stab at it."
"First of all, heirlooms have to be open-pollinated, versus a hybrid, because they're seeds that people are saving. 'Heirloom' is a provocative term because it's something that has value to the people who save it and pass it down. Often the traditions of an heirloom seed were passed down from generation to generation because a home gardener or a community… decided that that tomato was something that they value, even when the seed company decided that perhaps it wasn't something that they were going to produce."
Heirloom tomatoes might not be as disease-resistant as hybrid cultivars that have been bred to survive blight and inclement weather, and they might soften a little earlier too. But they are flavorful, visually delightful hand-me-downs that serve to remind us of simpler times while helping us preserve them for the future.
Although heirlooms can be found nearly everywhere come tomato season (including big-box grocers such as Wal-Mart), your best bet for getting locally grown—and often organically raised—heirloom tomatoes is to head to your nearest farmers market.