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Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

Tomato Time

Posted July 27, 2009 10:25 a.m. EDT
Updated July 27, 2009 11:32 a.m. EDT

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.”