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Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

Tomato Time

Posted July 27, 2009

Andy Rooney once said: “the federal government has sponsored research that has produced a tomato perfect in every respect, except you can’t eat it.” 


Many of the tomatoes you purchase in supermarkets these days are rubbery and barely edible. Garrison Keillor says these tomatoes taste like cardboard. I think he’s right. Flavor takes the back seat on hybrid tomatoes carefully cross-bred for uniformity.

How many of you have ever tasted heirloom tomatoes? Heirlooms are naturally pollinated tomatoes that have been handed down in families for 50, 100, or more years. Heirlooms tend to be more disease-prone. They sometimes take on odd shapes, have thinner skins than hybrid tomatoes and ripen over a longer period. But boy do they taste great!

I tried the heirloom tomato sampler over the weekend at 18 Seaboard in Raleigh. Talk about a volcano of vegetable flavor! Restaurant chef Jason Smith handpicked the heirloom tomatoes we had Saturday at Flat River Nursery in Timberlake just hours before we arrived for our meal. Flat River Nursey is in Person County between Durham and Roxboro. These tomatoes are grown by Joan and Charles Holeman. They have a very interesting story that they grow their tomatoes on Charles' mother’s farm that has been in their family for several generations. Jason says: “The Holemans grow some of the best heirlooms I have ever had and they are always trying to produce new varieties unique to the area. One of my favorites is the green zebra. It has one of the most lush textures with a very meaty finish with light acid zing finish and a beautiful chartreuse color.”

Jason loves to showcase North Carolina products in his restaurant located near Peace College. Tomatoes are a big part of his overall presentation. He’s a big fan of the heirloom varieties:

“Heirloom tomatoes are either cultivated or old breeds that are tougher to grow and do not ship well, however are grown for flavor and great presentation. We serve anywhere from 8 to 16 varieties in the restaurant while they are in season. The dish you had we actually serve as an appetizer but because I got back to the restaurant so late Saturday night we could not get them cleaned and prepped in time for dinner service. Last Saturday we sold 37 orders!”

What’s the best tasting tomato you’ve ever had? Please discuss.

I think I agree with Garrison Keillor who said: “The relationship of store-bought tomatoes to real tomatoes is like the relationship between ginger ale and gin. They are of a different family entirely.”

9 Comments

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  • bstrub Jul 28, 2009

    Birds are eating our tomatoes just as they begin to ripen. Any suggestions?

  • kendeb1982 Jul 27, 2009

    Better boys are the best. We grew our tomatoes upside down this year, and we have had a very good crop of tomatoes this year. I'm trying to save some seeds from these tomatoes to grow my own plants next year, and hopefully for years to come. Is that how you get heirloom tomatoes started?

  • garnertoy Jul 27, 2009

    I love the better boys nothing like a tomato sandwich with salt pepper mayo

  • maddie Jul 27, 2009

    There is no such thing as a juicy, flavorful store bought tomato. I like heirlooms, german johnson (not as much acid) and your ordinary better boys. Anything grown locally in the field is pure heaven. Be careful when you go to the market and know the difference between vine-ripened and field grown.

  • wkp01 Jul 27, 2009

    I don't know what the name of the tomatoes were, but I can remember going to the tomato patch with my daddy back in the early 60's with a salt and pepper shaker, sitting in the dirt of the garden, and enjoy a tasty snack of the red delicious fruit. What a treat and what a memory it was and is!!

  • wdwbmw Jul 27, 2009

    We don't grow heirloom tomatoes because of the difficulty in keeping them disease free. However we've been getting wonderful German Johnson tomatoes at the farmers' market. Our favorite backyard tomato is Amelia.

  • dontaskme Jul 27, 2009

    Our tomatoes are producing like crazy this year. I love a warm tomato sandwich with our homegrown, better boy's and bush varieties. Nothing better

  • wildfrenchrose Jul 27, 2009

    The best tomatoes come from the backyard. Even the farmer's market can't compare--those tomatoes, while local, are grown commercially and can't compete. That said, there IS a hothouse tomato that doesn't taste like cardboard--the Sunburst Tomato grown at the Bass family farm in Nashville NC. I didn't believe it myself until I tried it--but it's GOOOOOOD!!!!

  • 2thebeach Jul 27, 2009

    I love my Better Boys.

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