My family were mostly hybrid tomato growers, and I’ll admit, it’s hard to beat the built-in disease resistance of a hybrid. But one year, I traveled to Oklahoma to visit heirloom vegetable farmer Darrell Merrell, known to many as “The Tomato Man.” On that fine spring day, he gave me about 10 of his favorite heirloom tomato plant varieties to take home and plant in my own garden. Later that summer, as I sat on my back porch and ate the resulting tomatoes accompanied only by a salt shaker and a glass iced tea, I was sold.
In the South where I live, black (actually dark purple) tomatoes like Black Krim and Cherokee Purple are super performers. In my opinion, there is no better tasting heirloom than Cherokee Purple. It pumps out delicious fruit all summer long. I also especially like Homestead, which sets fruit in spite of hot summer temperatures, and an all-purpose pink heirloom called Arkansas Traveler. It’s the perfect slicing size for a bacon-and-tomato sandwich, my favorite summer treat.
What makes heirloom tomatoes taste so good? It’s a combination of things. Heirlooms have tender skin (which is why they can be hard to find at supermarkets — they’re not well suited for shipping cross-country) along with a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness to tantalize my taste buds. Another thing I love about them is that heirlooms come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, so I can grow a rainbow of flavors in my garden each year.
Every time I bite into an heirloom tomato, I reminded of that sunny day when The Tomato Man shared his favorite plants with me. Memories like that one, along with the generosity of fellow gardeners, are what make my green-thumb hobby so special. Try growing your own heirloom tomatoes this year, and see if you don’t agree!