Learning About Heirloom Tomatoes

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Amy Goldman talks about heirloom tomatoes the way oenophiles talk about fine wine. She discusses the acidity and sugar content of various varietals, and raves about nuances of texture, taste and aroma. The Orange Strawberry oxheart tomato "makes (her) heart sing," and the muddy color of the Purple Calabash "glows like 18th-century mahogany."

Goldman spoke at Smithsonian's Ripley Center last night at an event organized by the Smithsonian Resident Associates, and I stopped by mostly out of curiosity. How could someone fill an hour or two talking about nothing but tomatoes, I wondered? (I momentarily forgot that our own magazine easily filled several pages on that same subject last year.)

Well, Goldman could probably talk for days about tomatoes, as it turns out. She's written an entire book about them: The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table and she grows up to 500 varieties of tomatoes in her home garden every summer.

She also heads the board of Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa-based non-profit which both preserves and sells the seeds of thousands of heirloom garden plants that might have otherwise become extinct. (Gary Nabhan, a longtime advocate of seed conservation and crop diversity, is an advisor to the same organization.)

Goldman claims to love all of her tomatoes passionately, but a few of her "favorite favorites" include White Beauty ("the whitest of whites, but it compares with the best of reds in flavor"); Aunt Gertie's Gold ("reminds me of persimmon without the pucker"); Black Cherry ("beautiful and intense"); and the lobed Reisetomate, or Travel Tomato ("I've cast some of these in bronze, I love 'em so much!").

I picked up a Seed Savers catalog on my way out, and nearly missed my metro stop because I got lost in a garden daydream: Six heirloom tomato plants for $15! Would I get the Hungarian Heart or the Mexico Midget? German Pink or Green Zebra? Surely some Sudduth's Brandywine, which Goldman calls "perfection," despite discovering in her research that it isn't the real Brandywine (that would be red Brandywine, first introduced to the U.S. in 1889).

Then I remembered that I don't have a garden, or even my own yard. Guess I'll just have to take Goldman's advice:

"If you don't grow your own tomatoes, then I suggest you cozy up to someone who does!"

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