Attack of the Heirloom Tomatoes
The Brandywine: A Star Heirloom Takes on a Half-Century of Tomato Mediocrity
A revolt against the tomato, hybridized, gassed, and commodified almost beyond recognition, was inevitable. But who suspected that the vegetables themselves would lead it? Yet this is exactly what happened when, in 1978, angry tomatoes bent on revenge descended upon us.
On drive-in movie screens, that is.
Described by its publicist as “a musical comedy horror story about hybrid tomatoes that terrorize a community,” the ultra-low-budget ($90,000) Attack of the Killer Tomatoes became an instant cult classic, cementing the tomato’s place in American pop culture, spawning three sequels (including one starring a young George Clooney) and a cartoon series, while launching the career of—well, no one. In fact, the actors were just happy to get out of the production alive. Shooting nearly started and ended on the same day when a spectacular helicopter crash nearly beheaded half the cast.
In the script, the helicopter was supposed to have been piloted by a tomato. It might as well have been, because the human pilot, while attempting to land in a field near two actors playing detectives, allowed the tail rotor to dip, striking the ground and send- ing the chopper spinning wildly out of control, like a rotating guillotine, until it flipped over and went up in flames. All in all, a spectacle worthy of a big-budget Sylvester Stallone action movie.
With the cameras continuing to roll, the actors, ever the consummate professionals, did some quick improvisation while crawling away from the smoldering wreckage that destroyed the rented $60,000 aircraft. Their witty repartee included:
Detective 1: “The pilot’s still in there!”
Detective 2: “Forget about the pilot.”
In fact, the pilot was pulled to safety by the director and survived with only minor injuries, which seems remarkable if you’ve seen the footage. And you can. It appears in the first five minutes of the movie. Just promise you’ll come back when you’re done.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was filmed in 1977, the same year the New Yorker published a lengthy piece by Thomas Whiteside that confirmed for a lot of Americans what they had been suspecting for some time: Tomatoes weren’t what they used to be. That something had happened to the tomato was evident even on the set of the movie: The propman had to parboil the tomatoes in order to make them splat, not bounce, when thrown.
Whiteside was far from alone. A few years earlier, New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne had labeled grocery store tomatoes “tasteless, hideous, and repulsive”; and the dean of American cookery, James Beard, devoted a full section to “The Decline and Fall of the Tomato” in his 1974 classic, Beard on Food, calling tomatoes “a total gastronomic loss.” Supermarket tomatoes bore the brunt of the growing number of complaints, but anyone who’d been eating tomatoes for a lifetime knew that they weren’t as flavorful as those of yore, whether they came from Florida, a local farm stand, or even your own backyard. What had happened? Here again, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes provides a clue when a government scientist sheepishly admits, “All we wanted was a healthier, bigger tomato.” Unfortunately, real-life scientists had succeeded.
The names of some of them should, unless you’ve skipped a chapter or two, be familiar. Beginning with Alexander Livingston in the late 1800s, the work of geneticists and breeders such as Burpee’s Oved Shifriss and UC Davis’ Charley Rick—not to mention the ultra-engineering of the Florida tomato—had made the tomato redder, rounder, hardier, disease-resistant, more productive, and easier to grow. But these improvements came at the heavy cost of flavor and variety.
Yet it was a seemingly innocent trait, one that had crept into virtually every tomato hybrid in America, that was perhaps the most insidious of all, because its subtle but damaging effect wasn’t even recognized until recently.
If you’ve ever wondered why supermarket tomatoes are almost too uniformly red, an even scarlet color from top to bottom, it’s because they carry a mutation, discovered nearly a century ago, that causes the entire tomato to ripen all at once, rather than from the blossom end (bottom) up, often leaving a ring of green or white near the stem. Beginning in the 1950s, breeders seized upon this fortuitous mutation, breeding it into virtually every hybrid tomato on the market. After all, why not?
The “why not” didn’t become apparent until 2012, when a research team led by Ann Powell, a plant scientist at UC Davis, discovered that the even-ripening mutation has an unfortunate side effect: It prevents the fruit from synthesizing its own sugars and flavor compounds. To be sure, most of these important taste components are manufactured in the photosynthetic factory of the plant’s leaves, but up to 20 percent are produced in the tomato itself. Unless it has this even-ripening gene. So right out of the gate, before breeding for disease resistance or anything else, tomatoes have been robbed of a fifth of their flavor, owing to the presence of this gene.
Which brings us to genes.
When reduced to its essence, hybridization is the act of combining the genetic pools of separate populations, creating a new organism with traits of each. And, as we’ve seen, it’s a pretty chancy act at that. It may take years or decades to achieve the desired result; indeed, you may never get there at all. Unless that is, you take a more targeted approach to combining the gene pools of two tomato varieties. Why spend all those years playing Gregor Mendel, crossing thousands upon thousands of plants— with about the same success rate as flinging rotten tomatoes against a wall until you get a splat that resembles the Mona Lisa— when modern technology allows you to take the gene responsible for the specific trait you want and simply splice it into the target tomato?
Ask a certain extinct biotechnology company. It turns out, there is a killer tomato in our story. It’s “The Tomato That Ate Calgene.”
The 1980s saw landmark advances in the science of genetic engineering, and while still costly and experimental, its poten- tial use in agriculture seemed limitless. World hunger could be
vanquished by taking, say, the gene from a strain of wheat found to have drought tolerance (but was otherwise poor and low-yielding) and inserting that gene into a high-yielding strain. Malnutrition could be addressed by inserting the gene that synthesizes vitamin A into rice grown in impoverished, vitamin-deficient parts of the world.
Because genes are made up of DNA, and DNA is just sequences of four chemicals—arranged in that double helix you never really understood in high school, but don’t worry about that now— there’s nothing to distinguish, at a molecular level, a cow gene from a rice gene. So there’s no reason why the gene you’re inserting into wheat or rice needs to come from another strain of that plant. It could come from anything: bacteria, a carrot, or even a flounder. Which, we’ll see shortly, is not merely hypothetical.
Surely, even knowing next to nothing about agriculture, you could conjure up a few exciting ways to genetically combine plants that would be beneficial to humankind. Go ahead, set aside any opinions you may have about the politics, science, or safety of genetically modified organisms, and take a moment to think about how genetically modified foods could make the world a better, kinder place.
I’m going to bet that a tomato that rots more slowly on your windowsill didn’t come to mind. Yet this was the first—and I mean the world’s very first—genetically modified food. How and why this happened provides one of the strangest chapters in the history of the tomato.
Among the Americans who agreed with Claiborne and Beard on the sorry state of supermarket tomatoes was a group of scientists at Calgene, a biotechnology start-up founded in 1980 by some University of California at Davis alums. They had some big ideas they believed could be achieved with a genetic snip here and a splice there, including healthier canola oil and denim-colored cotton (no dying required!). As luck would have it, though, their imaginations were captured, then held hostage, by the gene recently found to be responsible for making ripe tomatoes turn soft and shrivel.
This softening, a phenomenon all too familiar to anyone who’s kept a tomato in the kitchen for more than a few days, is caused by a protein called polygalacturonase, or just (thank goodness) PG, that breaks down the pectin in the fruit. (The lack of pectin in overripe tomatoes was, remember, why Heinz insisted on using only the freshest tomatoes in his ketchup, which relied on pec- tin’s preservative properties.) Calgene researchers discovered that if they cloned the gene responsible for producing PG, made a kind of mirror image of it, and inserted it back into the tomato, this so-called antisense gene would cancel out the PG gene, thus slowing the softening and rotting of harvested tomatoes by a week or so.
While of obvious (if slightly frivolous) benefit to the consumer, shelf life wasn’t the only thing Calgene executives were excited about. They reasoned that if antisensing the PG gene slowed the softening of harvested tomatoes, it should also slow the soften- ing of tomatoes still on the vine, meaning they could be left to ripen a few more days, yet still survive the rough handling that industrial tomatoes endure, all without the tomato’s archenemy: refrigeration.
This extra time on the vine, so the thinking went, would give Calgene’s tomatoes more flavor than Florida’s mature green tomatoes, admittedly not a high bar to clear. Dubbing it the Flavr Savr, they predicted that their premium, branded tomato, short on vowels but high on flavor and shelf life, would fetch a price two to three times that of the generic supermarket variety, securing a nice slice of the $4 billion fresh tomato market.
Now, you’d think that an upstart research laboratory whose expertise was in genetic engineering might develop and license this technology to established tomato growers and be happy to collect royalties for the next couple of decades, but they were so seduced by their own press releases that they wanted the whole tomato. “Everybody is going to get rich,” Calgene CEO Roger Salquist predicted six months before the tomato’s release. So, this biotech start-up created within its walls a tomato start-up, a farm-to-store growing, distribution, and sales division they named Calgene Fresh. Never mind that the researchers were, by their own admission, “just a bunch of gene jockeys, not tomato farmers,” or that the theory crucial to their business model—that silencing the PG gene would allow them to handle their vine-ripened tomatoes like green tomatoes—had yet to be tested in the field.
Details, details . . . Time was of the essence. They knew they weren’t the only ones in town looking at controlling the PG gene. So, in their race to market, Calgene went all in, ramping up on R and D, building automated tomato sorting and packing facilities, and burning through tons of cash.
They also went to the Food and Drug Administration for an advisory opinion. In 1990 the FDA didn’t yet have a policy on the regulation of genetically modified foods (because there weren’t any). Calgene justifiably felt that getting the FDA seal of approval on the world’s first GMO food was virtually mandatory, as much from a public relations as a legal standpoint. The regulatory pro-cess, however, would prove more difficult than the science.
In fact, the science—gene-splicing (or recombinant DNA) technology—was by then pretty well established. To get the anti-sense gene into a tomato plant, Calgene scientists made use of Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a common soil bacterium that causes crown gall tumors, those hard, woody masses commonly seen on tree bark. Because the bacterium attacks an organism by inserting a small piece of its DNA into the host, scientists can take advantage of this genetic transferability by replacing the bacterial gene that causes the gall with the gene they want to transfer—in this case the antisensed PG gene—and soaking the tomato tissue in a solution of this modified bacterium.
The tomatoes don’t always drink up the genetic soup, however, so you need a way to know which of your hundreds of tomato cuttings successfully incorporated the antisense gene before you invest months into nurturing them. Thus Calgene added another gene to ride shotgun alongside the PG gene: a “selectable marker gene” that made the Flavr Savr resistant to kanamycin, an anti-biotic. With this gene on board, the scientists could simply grow the tomatoes in a medium containing this toxic antibiotic, and, conveniently, only those cuttings that had taken up the coupled antisensed and antibiotic genes would survive.
Hello! Did someone say antibiotic-resistant tomatoes? You can see where this is going. This technique of using kanamycin- resistant A. tumefaciens was commonplace in the laboratory, but of course not yet in any foods, although the candidates were starting to line up like peas in a pod. Calgene reasoned that even before getting the green light on PG-neutered tomatoes they had to first convince the FDA that this small piece of antibiotic DNA inserted into every tomato wasn’t going to compromise the future effec- tiveness of antibiotic drug treatment for humans. Calgene tried to downplay the risks in their FDA submission, but the FDA kept coming back for more safety information, and more experimentation, meaning more time and money.
Meanwhile, the gene-jockeys-turned-tomato-farmers had been trying to find just the right tomato variety in which to insert their Flavr Savr gene.
They picked the wrong one.
The tomato that was unnaturally selected was a variety called Pacific, a lackluster tomato whose main asset was the lack of patents or other intellectual property rights that accompany newer varieties. That it bruised easily and didn’t travel well became apparent to Calgene only when the inaugural shipment of Flavr Savr tomatoes arrived in a tractor trailer from Mexico for their midnight debut at Calgene Fresh headquarters, with company brass on hand for a big celebration.
With great anticipation the doors of the truck were flung open—to tons of tomato pulp and juice. The twenty-five-pound boxes of soft tomatoes had collapsed onto one another. The tomatoes were crushed, the shipment a total loss. One executive stood in shock, muttering, “It’s over, it’s over,” while the director of finance rolled up his sleeves, got a shovel, and started cleaning up the mess.
The Pacific cultivar wasn’t the only problem. The seductive theory, never proved in the field, that silencing the PG gene would keep vine-ripe tomatoes firm enough to be handled like unripe, green tomatoes, was as rotten as the tomatoes in the truck. That meant Calgene would have to abandon its costly, just-purchased automated processing equipment and carefully (and expensively) sort and pack tomatoes by hand.
The Flavr Savr tomato was eating Calgene alive, gobbling up as much as $43 million a year in tomato-red ink. And while the FDA process dragged on into its second, then third year, interest in—and concern about—GMO foods was starting to build, much to Calgene’s surprise and bewilderment. Who could be against a better tomato? they wondered. Jeremy Rifkin, for one.
Rifkin was an economist and social activist who’d previously made some waves at the two hundredth anniversary of the Bos- ton Tea Party by dumping empty oil barrels into Boston Harbor to protest Big Oil. He had been warning of the dangers of bio-technology almost since it had been given a name, using lawsuits, congressional testimony, television appearances, and speeches and books to garner influence and publicity. His 1977 book, Who Should Play God?, warned in apocalyptic terms about the dangers of messing around with genes in the laboratory. The arguments and risks were hypothetical back then, but now, with an actual product on the horizon, Rifkin declared war on the Flavr Savr, pledging to fight it with every weapon that his Pure Food Campaign (the name perhaps intentionally recalling the Pure Food Movement of the late 1800s) could muster.
He had his Pure Food followers picket theaters showing the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park in one hundred cities across America, handing out flyers featuring a dinosaur pushing a grocery basket labeled “Biotech Frankenfoods.” Six months later, Rif kin turned his attention to the Campbell Soup Company, which had been financing Calgene’s research to the tune of a million dollars a year, with the potential of millions more if Campbell used the technology in their processed products. Campbell’s interest was to control pectin decay in tomatoes on their way into the company’s sauces and soups, although they were also flirting with the idea of getting into the fresh tomato market. That all went down the drain after Rifkin threatened a boycott of the company. Camp- bell’s, with a hundred-year reputation built on wholesomeness, had no trouble choosing sides in this battle. They not only broke with Calgene, but also publicly pledged that they would never use GMO foods in their iconic products, one of the first American companies to do so.
The trouble was only beginning. An anti-GMO New York Times op-ed, bearing the alarming title “Tomatoes May Be Dangerous to Your Health,” must have landed like a bombshell at Calgene. Of more lasting damage was a supporting letter to the editor a week later that coined the term Frankenfood, a word that language maven William Safire admiringly called “the hottest combining form in populist suspicion of science.” Speaking of bombshells, even the Unabomber—Ted Kaczynski, the domestic terrorist who killed three people and injured twenty-three others in a nationwide bombing campaign directed against those he believed to be promoting technology—got into the act, using Calgene’s return address on the manifesto he mailed to the Times.
Incredibly, more bad news followed. A competitor, DNA Plant Technology, announced that they were experimenting with inserting an “antifreeze” gene from an arctic flounder with the goal of producing a tomato that could withstand frost. Instead of taking the heat off Calgene, this far more sinister-sounding “fish tomato” became conflated with the Flavr Savr, as well as spoiling
appetites for GMO tomatoes harvested from any sea.
Finally, on May 18, 1994, nearly five years after beginning a regulatory process that hadn’t been required, short on cash, and with tomatoes rotting in the field, salvation in the form of FDA approval for the world’s first genetically modified food arrived. Three days later the first shipments hit the market. It was too little, too late. Within three years the Flavr Savr tomato, having been nurtured with $200 million, had vanished without a trace. As had Calgene.
What happened is probably not what you think. Rif kin notwithstanding, it wasn’t public opinion against genetically modified tomatoes (the anti-GMO movement wouldn’t gain momentum for another few years). It wasn’t bad press (Tom Brokaw, Connie Chung, and countless local newscasters swooned over the wonder of these genetically modified tomatoes, often expressing surprise that it looks like a regular tomato!). And it wasn’t the flavor (they were nothing special, but they were better than the competition). In fact, they sold quite well to a public eager if not desperate for a better supermarket tomato.
Then what slew the Flavr Savr? Certainly, the fact that Cal- gene was spending $10 a pound to produce tomatoes that sold for $2 a pound was not a sustainable business model. A hurricane in Florida that carried an entire crop into the Atlantic didn’t help, nor did Calgene’s inexperience as tomato farmers and distributors, nor did the fact that Mexican growers had started shipping new, non-GMO vine-ripened varieties with improved shelf life. All of those factors contributed, but what really killed the Flavr Savr was that the company was simply exhausted and broke and was never going to regain solvency with a boutique tomato.
Calgene’s stock plunged from $25 to $4 a share, and in 1996 the agrochemical giant Monsanto bought the company on the cheap—lock, stock, and patents—and shut down the tomato business for good. As now ex-CEO Roger Salquist said, in a line that could’ve come right out of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, “The biggest mistake was we tried to make it too big, too fast.”
Such was the bad taste that the Flavr Savr left behind, that twenty-five years later there is not a single GMO tomato on the market, which doesn’t prevent the appearance of “Non-GMO” stickers on supermarket tomatoes. Every farmer, reseller, and breeder I met during the course of my research emphasized, always without prompting, that they were not breeding, growing, or selling genetically modified tomatoes.
Ironically, the Flavr Savr blazed the regulatory trail for the avalanche of GMO foods to follow. Open your cupboard, and almost everything in there—canola oil, cereal, cornmeal, soy milk, baby formula, soda, snack bars, cookies, and anything sweetened with corn syrup or sugar beets—has a genetically modified ingredient. But not for the idealistic reasons that motivated Calgene, such as the promise of a tastier tomato or healthier oil. After the Flavr Savr flopped, GMO went in quite a different direction: While Calgene’s products were developed for the benefit of the consumer, nearly all GMO crops today are engineered to benefit the producer.
By far the most successful of these, found in 95 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States, carries the trademarked term Roundup Ready. First introduced in 1996, these crops have a patented gene that provides immunity to the widely used herbicide, allowing Roundup to be used with abandon, and relieving farmers of the expense of tilling or mechanically pulling weeds. The practice has become quite controversial in recent years, with the appearance of Roundup-resistant “superweeds” and reports of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among farmworkers who have been exposed to the herbicide, but it’s proving hard to coax the genie back into the bottle.
The manufacturer of these genetically modified seeds? The same as the manufacturer of Roundup.
Hybridized, commoditized, and Frankensteined. The last decades of the twentieth century had been particularly cruel to the tomato. Yet far from the supermarket aisles and biotech laboratories a loosely organized underground movement of hobbyist gardeners, refusing to accept the miserable status quo, were quietly trading stories, tasting notes, and, most importantly, seeds. The revolution had begun.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the heirloom tomato movement began. A search of newspaper archives for “heirloom tomato” turns up the occasional reference starting in the early 1990s, but it’s not until 1997 that the phrase starts appearing with any frequency, steadily increasing into the first decade of this century. Yet hobbyist gardeners had been growing forgotten tomatoes under the radar since at least the 1970s, facilitated by the sprouting of organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange, or SSE. The SSE was founded in 1975 after a couple of idealistic Missouri homesteaders still in their twenties, Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, found themselves in sole possession of the seeds of two plants—a tomato and morning glory—brought over by Diane’s Bavarian ancestors in 1884. When Diane’s grand-parents died shortly after gifting her some seeds of each, Diane realized that if she didn’t grow (and even better, distribute) these varieties—family heirlooms as prized as antique silverware or china—they would be lost, forever.
This, Diane writes in her memoir, Gathering, started the Whealys thinking about the larger problem of vanishing cultivars:
"We started to speculate about other gardeners who were keeping seed brought to this country when their families immigrated. We knew that seeds used for favorite foods back home—reminders of the old country—were hidden away in personal belongings like apron pockets and ferried across the ocean... and passed down through generations."
Surely, the Whealys figured, there had to be other people interested in preserving these “heirlooms” (defined loosely as being at least fifty years old and open pollinated, although some reserve the term for varieties that were present before the era of hybridization—that is, pre-1950). Today Kent might’ve posted on Reddit or found a Facebook group, but in 1975 he sought out other like-minded individuals by publishing letters in a handful of national gardening magazines such as Mother Earth News. Several readers responded, offering their own heirloom seeds for exchange. As word spread, more offers arrived in the mail, and before long the Whealys had assembled a six-page typed list (available to anyone who sent a self-addressed envelope and a quarter) with the names and addresses of seed traders either willing to share or seeking seeds. This put the SSE at the hub of an informal network of heirloom plant enthusiasts.
The 25 cents requested to cover expenses was revealing; the young couple was just barely scraping by. Kent, although holding a degree in journalism, worked a series of odd jobs (the closest he got to journalism was working a printing press, which would later come in handy), while Diane was raising their young family. Their house, near Princeton, Missouri, was constructed on a remote fifty-acre farm over a period of two years, using old telephone poles and stones culled from the property. Because no bank would grant a loan to an underemployed journalist and a self-described “vegetarian, hippie, yoga-practicing homesteader,” much of the construction was done by family and friends. Diane planted a large orchard and garden that she hoped would help feed her family.
In 1981, with plastic sheeting serving as the windows in their unfinished home, the Whealys held their first annual “campout weekend,” so that the savers, a geographically diverse group who knew one another only through correspondence, could meet. A dozen showed up that first year, pitching tents or living in campers on the Whealy farm. By the third year, the gathering had grown to fifty, exhausting the cistern, and the guests passed the hat to collect $30 for a water delivery.
As membership in the exchange grew, the mailbox filled with letters like this one, from Edward Lowden, a ninety-one-year-old from Ontario:
"Mr. Topp tomato, a very valuable tomato... with frost-resistant genes, has been lost . . . around 1917-1921 . . . It has valuable characteristics, that surpassed anything I have ever seen in other tomatoes . . . but its most valuable characteristic was its ability to withstand light frost in the fall that ruined other tomatoes . . . I would give anything to secure that one . . . Maybe someone somewhere knows of it."
No word as to whether this wonderful-sounding tomato, frost-resistant without the help of a flounder gene, ever turned up. But for every seed seeker, there was a gardener eager to share. One of the six original members of the SSE, Lina Sisco, sent a package of beans from Winona, Missouri, with the following note:
"I have been gardening for more years than I like to think about and I do love to raise all kinds of stuff . . . The Bird Egg beans have been in my family for many, many years, as my grandmother brought them to Missouri . . . They are all free to you. Hope you have good luck with them."
Sisco died the following spring, but by then the Whealys and two other savers had started growing her Bird Eggs, rescuing these lovely speckled beans from extinction.
Kent and Diane noticed that more than a few of the letters carried a similar, worrisome theme: My seed catalog has stopped carrying this variety. Does anyone have any? The seed industry was seeing rapid consolidation in the 1970s and 1980s (from 1970 to 1987, for example, Burpee ownership transferred from the Burpee family to first General Foods, then to the global aerospace and transportation conglomerate ITT, then to the investment firm McKinsey, before being rescued by seedsman George Ball in 1991), and the new corporate entities weren’t willing to carry seeds that didn’t sell well, whatever their qualities. Kent sounded the alarm in 1981, warning that “far from being obsolete or inferior, the varieties being dropped today are literally the cream of our vegetable crops . . . But they are being allowed to die out.”
This sharp loss of biodiversity, alarming to gardeners and agricultural scientists alike, was the primary motivation of many seed savers, who saw themselves as custodians of the earth, literally “savers of seed.” But many saw something more concerning— even sinister—happening in the seed business. Open-pollinated varieties were being replaced by hybrids. “If I buy a pack of standard tomato seeds,” Kent told Mother Earth News in 1981, “I can save my own seeds from then on... and never have to order that particular vegetable from the supplier again. But if I want to keep planting a hybrid vegetable, I must go back to the company every spring for more seeds. So, as more and more of the hybrids push out the standard varieties, my choices become more and more limited . . . and I become more dependent on the seed companies.”
Seed companies like Burpee, that is. It was the huge success of one hybrid in particular, the Big Boy tomato, that “reset the paradigm for tomato development,” seed saver and self-proclaimed “tomato nut” Craig LeHoullier told me, propelling the other major seed companies to develop and sell hybrids of their own.
Like it or not, agribusiness now had growers firmly by the kernels, and the seed savers were ready to fight back. Seed exchanges large and small started sprouting up around the country, and garden magazines responded by publishing letters and seed-swap columns. In the early 1990s a new technology, an electronic mailing list called a “LISTSERV” (and, later, websites and internet bulletin boards) would exponentially expand the reach of the movement.
By then, hundreds of older, amateur-grown tomato varieties had surfaced, often with names and origin stories as colorful as their fruits: Green Zebra; Cream Sausage (a white, elongated tomato whose appearance sounds as unappealing as its name); and Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, a 1930s grapefruit-sized variety that was so popular that ol’ Radiator Charlie (an auto mechanic whose name was not Charlie at all, but Marshall Cletis Byles) was able to pay off his mortgage with seed sales. But one rediscovered tomato stood out from the pack, so to speak. For many, the term heirloom tomato would become synonymous with this variety, the poster child of the heirloom tomato movement: the Brandywine.
As poster children go, it wasn’t much to look at. Ungainly on the vine at about a pound, with a kind of sickly-looking pale skin that often cracked and turned leathery near the stem; a core that ran so deeply into the fruit that, after cutting it out, your first few slices were inevitably rings; and susceptible to wilt, blight, and rot, this late bloomer (ninety to one hundred days before you picked your first tomato) had one, and only one, thing going for it: It was scrumptious.
As in revelation scrumptious. Now this, you’d say, as juice dripped down your chin, is what tomatoes used to taste like. And you said that even if you’d never tasted yesterday’s tomato, as if the flavors exploding in your mouth triggered a kind of genetic memory. LeHoullier, in Epic Tomatoes, writes, “After growing over a thousand different tomatoes over the years it is still Brandywine that I think of when I ponder the perfect tomato-eating experience . . . an unmatched succulent texture that melts in your mouth. The flavor enlivens the taste buds, with all the favorable components of the best tomatoes—tartness, sweetness, fullness, and complexity—in perfect balance.”
Many agreed. New York Times garden columnist Anne Raver introduced the Brandywine to readers in 1995, and Martha Stewart declared its taste “the essence of summer.”
It’s not clear where the Brandywine originally came from. Its name would suggest the Brandywine Valley in southern Pennsylvania, and it’s often described in seed catalogs as an Amish variety, but its origins have always been a little murky. The Seed Savers Exchange, which I suppose is as reliable a source as any for this kind of thing, attributes its reintroduction to the legendary Ohio seedsman Ben Quisenberry, then in his nineties, who said he received them from Dorris Sudduth Hill, who in turn said her family had been growing them in Tennessee for a hundred years. Thus, this Brandywine is often referred to as the Sudduth strain.
Strains (or variants), by which we mean a slight variation caused by mutation or cross-pollination, make things tricky when it comes to pinning paternity on heirlooms. The Brandywine is no exception because your Brandywine might not be the same cultivar as mine. Unlike hybrids, which are tightly controlled and sold by a handful of licensees, Brandywines have been preserved, distributed, and redistributed by any number of seed savers (and, more recently, seed companies), so there are several different strains out there. Plus, the occasional cross-pollination caused by a determined bee can change the genetic makeup without the grower realizing it. And to further blur things, several other tomatoes carry the Brandywine moniker. There’s a Red Brandy- wine and a Yellow Brandywine, which, while fine tomatoes in themselves, are distinct from the Sudduth strain.
The Brandywine is easily identified by its uncommon “potato leaf ” foliage. Tomatoes have perhaps the most recognizable leaves in the vegetable world, small and sharply serrated, but the Brandywine’s leaves are large and smooth, with a single notch on each side near the base, closely resembling those of the potato. So much so that when growing potatoes in my garden for the first time, when the spuds leafed out, I momentarily wondered if some Brandywine seeds from last season’s tomatoes had sprouted in the potato patch. I shouldn’t have been so confused, though, since potatoes and tomatoes are cousins, members of the same genus (Solanus) of the nightshade family.
The implications of that relationship would become apparent in the summer of 2009, but for now, the late 1990s, abloom with heirlooms of all shapes, sizes, and colors, represented a true tomato renaissance in America. It was the 1830s all over again. The East Coast’s doyenne of style, Martha Stewart, announced that she’d converted nearly her entire tomato patch to heirlooms, while the West Coast’s farm-to-table tastemaker, Alice Waters, was featuring them on her Chez Panisse menus. From Los Angeles to East Hampton, no benefit worthy of the name would dare put out a spread that didn’t include multiple varieties of colorful heirloom tomatoes. The farmers who’d started growing heirlooms could barely keep up with the demand.
How had heirloom tomatoes, just a few years earlier the exclusive purview of seed-trading garden geeks, helicoptered into the mainstream so quickly, and why did it happen in the last decade of the twentieth century? These are the kinds of questions that intrigue sociologists, leading the University of Wisconsin’s Jennifer A. Jordan to wonder in a 2007 academic paper how it was that consumers suddenly started shelling out “$7 per pound for bug-eaten, calloused, mottled and splitting tomatoes that may or may not taste good.”
Part of the answer, Jordan concluded, was that the tomato had achieved a certain status as not just a food, but as a cultural object, one that said something about its consumer. You felt virtuous about eating an heirloom tomato, with elements of both the old (its heritage) and the new (a stripy tomato!), and if you were tuned in to the social issues of biodiversity and agribusiness, you felt even better. Indeed, the heirloom tomato had become a status symbol, an indicator of wealth and taste. There was undeniably an element of snobbery in their consumption, both at the high-end restaurants that served them and the farmers’ markets that sold them, set apart from the plebeians in a separate bin with a higher price tag.
In fact, those farmers’ markets, which were expanding exponentially at precisely the same time as the heirlooms (from 1970 to 2009, the number of farmers’ markets in New York State alone rose from a half dozen to more than four hundred), played a significant role in their popularization. The Slow Food and organic movements, both of which gained momentum in the 1990s, also nicely dovetailed with the heirlooms’ ascent, making vine-ripened, organic heirloom tomatoes many a baby boomer’s trifecta.
A 1997 New York Times article postulated that the heirloom gardening phenomenon was fueled by the abundant time, income, and sensibilities of that growing part of society dubbed the baby boomers. “[They] have more leisure time,” one seed company owner was quoted as saying. “They have more sophisticated palates . . . I also think people are looking for something real, something that tells them about why we are on earth.”
That apparently included, in addition to heirloom tomatoes, imported aged vinegars, artisanal cheeses, Napa Valley wines, and threads of saffron pricier than cocaine. Yet the wonderful thing about heirloom tomatoes, unique among the yuppie consumables of the ’90s, is that you didn’t have to be a member of the elite to possess them. Anyone could grow the same prestige tomato varieties as Martha Stewart, provided you had a few feet of yard to spare—or even a patio.
In 1997 I had more than a few feet of yard to spare. We’d purchased a dilapidated hundred-year-old house on three hilly acres and had converted one sunny slope to a large vegetable garden. Soon it was planted with more than two thousand square feet of heirloom tomatoes, heirloom strawberries, heirloom potatoes, heirloom squash, and heirloom apple trees. I never even considered any of the hybrid tomato “boys and girls,” instead growing Brandywine and Cherokee Purple from seed, under four banks of fluorescent lights. I did feel good, as Jennifer Jordan suggests, about growing these older fruits and vegetables that connected me to the past. I loved the fact that not only were my Esopus Spitzenburg apples grown and favored by my boyhood idol Thomas Jefferson, but they were discovered in my very own Hudson Valley, near Esopus, New York.
I conveniently ignored the fact that my tree was dripping with more history than apples—easily done because the rough, thick-skinned Spitzenburgs were a challenge to the digestive system. I also tried to overlook the inconvenient truth that my Brandywine tomatoes, while undeniably delicious, were harder to raise than goldfish in the desert. Early blight yielded to verticillium wilt, which conceded to anthracnose fruit rot, which abdicated to—if any were left—late blight.
One thing I couldn’t keep ignoring was my wallet. I seemed to be spending a fortune growing all these heirlooms. Wondering if I was getting less out of my garden than I was putting in, one late summer evening I sat down with the receipts to compute just how much I’d spent to grow each of the eighteen Brandywines I’d managed to salvage after deer, groundhogs, and disease had gotten the rest.
The answer became the title of my first book, The $64 Tomato.
The monetary stakes were much higher for those northeastern farmers who’d converted most of their tomato acreage to more lucrative heirloom varieties when, in 2009, late blight—the same disease responsible for the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1849— destroyed some 75 percent of their heirloom crops (and 100 per-cent of mine). Encouraged by a cool, damp summer and possibly introduced by cheap seedlings that were bred in the South and sold in discount garden centers like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart, the fungus spread on the wind like wildfire, infecting everything in its path, even tomatoes with some resistance. “I remember being shocked that late blight could overcome single resistance genes so quickly,” Burpee breeder Simon Crawford had told me, calling it perhaps the biggest surprise of his long breeding career.
There are few effective chemical remedies for many of the diseases that plague tomatoes, and even fewer for organic growers like myself. To make matters worse, many of these bacteria and fungi live in the soil for years, making them extremely difficult to eradicate once they’ve arrived. Indeed, the best way to battle disease is to breed resistance into the tomatoes. In other words, create a hybrid.
There, I said it. But every self-respecting revolution needs a counterrevolution, and the heirloom tomato uprising was no exception. What was surprising was that the first countershot heard loudly round the world was fired by a former revolutionary, Dan Barber, the prominent New York haute-barnyard chef and restaurateur whose Blue Hill at Stone Barns $250 tasting menu often featured estate-grown heirloom cherry tomatoes on the vine, artistically woven across a miniature tabletop trellis. Bar- ber was an early and vocal proponent of both the farm-to-table and heirloom trends, but in August 2009, reeling from a total loss of Stone Barns’ tomato crop to late blight, he wrote a New York Times op-ed that resonated with farmers and chefs alike:
"To many advocates of sustainability, science . . . is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic. It’s a nostalgia I’m guilty of promoting as a chef when I celebrate only heirloom tomatoes on my menus. These venerable tomato varieties are indeed important to preserve, and they’re often more flavorful than conventional varieties. But in our feverish pursuit of what’s old, we can marginalize the development of what could be new."
Our feverish pursuit of what’s old. This sentiment was echoed widely. A Scientific American article making “the case against heirloom tomatoes” characterized them as the vegetable equivalent of “the pug—that ‘purebred’ dog with the convoluted nose that snorts and hacks when it tries to catch a breath.” Fewer stories were appearing about heirloom tomatoes and more about how a new generation of breeders was trying to return flavor to toma-toes through a more scientific approach to hybridization. They were taking advantage of technology that Oved Shifriss never had at his disposal, including the complete mapping of the tomato genome.
Undoubtedly part of this was merely heirloom-news fatigue, but after the novelty of growing heirlooms had passed, farmers had discovered the risks, and some gardeners (myself included) had grown weary of harvesting between zero and eighteen tomatoes over a two-month season. As Lipman’s breeder, Mark Barineau, told me, “you can’t taste a tomato that doesn’t exist.”
Heirloom tomatoes never caught on in the commercial tomato world, where they remain niche, representing just a tiny fraction of the tomatoes consumed in the country. Not necessarily because of disease susceptibility, but precisely because they’re heirlooms— that is, they haven’t been bred to perform as projectiles and thus don’t travel or keep well. (You sometimes feel lucky if a Brandywine makes it from your garden to your table unscathed.)
Yet they’ve not gone away; if anything, heirlooms have become commodified over the past two decades, available today in mainstream seed catalogs and as seedlings at garden and home centers. My local grocery store always has a bin of anonymous (and awful) heirloom tomatoes from Mexican greenhouses. Heirlooms are still a staple of summer farmers’ markets, although it seems that less emphasis is placed on specific varieties these days; apparently the “heirloom” label is sufficient to attract buyers with deeper pockets. Consequently, some are good; many are not.
But the heirloom tomato, rediscovered by backyard gardeners in backyard gardens, was never destined for large-scale farming, and to this day its cultural and culinary impact far exceeds its commercial clout. The heirloom revolution is maybe the most exciting thing to have happened to tomatoes in a century, proof that a handful of enthusiasts with no more technology than a postage stamp can shake up an industry.
More importantly, thanks to the seed savers’ single-minded determination, millions of Americans tasted a real tomato for the first time, a tomato without the even-ripening gene, a tomato not artificially bred for travel, but naturally selected for flavor. And they are not likely to forget that taste. Some started visiting farmer's markets; others have, or will start, gardens of their own just to experience the joy of eating a freshly picked Brandywine, still warm from the sun.
In most of the country, though, by late September the sun is too low in the sky to ripen any more tomatoes, and even the indeterminate varieties are running out of steam, robbed of vitality by the short days and chilly nights, until the first hard frosts shiver the fruits and shrivel the vines. Quick, coax the last tomatoes into a little ripeness on your windowsill and enjoy one final taste of summer. For winter is coming.
“Highly readable… Mr. Alexander presents himself as an apprentice, but the reader quickly discovers he is also a master teacher."—Wall Street Journal on Flirting with French