May 10th, 2009
The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table

Victor Schrager’s portraits for “The Heirloom Tomato” inspire me to try photographing my own tomatoes. From left to right: Azoychka, Jeune Flamme, and Black Cherry.

I check out garden books from the library every week. It’s rare that I open a book and just know I have to own it. Such was the case with Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit. I’ve been browsing it for less than a day and I’ve already ordered it from Amazon.

I wish I had read it a couple of months ago when I was In Search of the Perfect Tomato. At the time I was frustrated by my inability to find concrete information on various tomatoes. After awhile the catalog descriptions become mind-numbing in their sameness. How many ways are there to describe a tomato anyway? Besides catalog descriptions are written to sell a product. I wanted direction and objectivity from the garden blogosphere. Hanna @ This Garden is Illegal writes wonderfully detailed review of her tomato tastings but she is in the minority. My frustration is at an end. Now I have Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato.

In this book, Ms. Goldman evaluates tomatoes the way a wine reviewer writes about wine. She considers size and weight, shape, color, soluble solids (to get an objective measurement of sweetness), flavor, and texture. In looking at the plants themselves, she describes plant habit, leaf type, yield, and date to maturity. She explains her criteria in more detail before launching into the tomato descriptions.

Before I could settle into the text I was distracted by Victor Schrager’s tomato “portraits”. After feasting with my eyes on his photographs, I could understand why one might not stoop to calling them mere photographs. The Heirloom Tomato has page after glossy page of tomatoes arranged by size, shape, or color on milk glassware in the modern equivalent of a Renaissance still life painting. There are single tomato portraits, too, but I really appreciate contrasting the qualities of the many heirlooms featured. A tomato can be so much more than a smooth, round, red globe.

AJM actually picked this book up at the library, honing in on the final chapter “Recipes”. With our mere seven plants, I doubt that we’ll ever have the excess harvest required to think about eating tomatoes any other way than fresh off the vine. So I skipped back a section to the tomato descriptions. Whenever I read any reviews, (travel, wine, movie, books) I always look at things I’m familiar with first in order to calibrate the reviewer’s tastes and biases against my own.

So it was with great pleasure to turn to the very first tomato description and discover that it is of a cherry tomato I picked last week ‘Black Cherry’. Ms. Goldman approves of my choice: “This tomato tastes like plumstone fruit without the stone.; it bests any bigger black plum or beefsteak.” As if to demonstrate these descriptions are not just catalog marketing, on the same page she says of ‘Yellow Pygmy’, “…looks cute, but no one has ever accused it of being palatable.” That’s what I like! A touch of bitter to temper the sweet.

I have a couple of quibbles about the book design. The tomato descriptions begin with the data for each tomato followed by Ms. Goldman’s more subjective evaluation or some historical tidbits. The data section has headings in small caps but the data itself is in italics…of a very small size. Her description is in a standard font face. Those italics are very difficult to read. In some instances, the italicized part of the tomato entry is more lengthy than Ms. Goldman’s notes on it. All those italics make painful reading–they obscure the fascinating information. One thing I gleaned, though. Heirloom does not seem to be restricted to old varieties, just open-pollinated (that is, not hybrid) varieties.

Two other book design quibbles. In the section table of contents, the most important information is black small caps and italics against a dull green background. And it’s centered-space. This must look nice as design but it is unusable as a table of contents. The main text of the book could use a lot more subheading. Even I, who am very text-oriented, found the unbroken text a bit much. Ms. Goldman’s writing is well-organized into paragraphs and sections, but the book layout doesn’t reinforce this.

I continued reading “The Heirloom Tomato” backwards. In the early chapters Ms. Goldman explains how she grew 1000 tomato plant (two of each variety) for two years in order to write this book. The chapter on how to grow tomatoes, from seed, to seedling, to hardening off, to care and feeding, pruning and picking, and finally gathering seed for next year is a wonderful resource for new and longtime tomato growers alike.

Bottom line: Highly Recommended
This is a book that I not only just bought for myself but that I see myself buying as a gift for others in the years ahead. Now to check out Ms. Goldman’s books on melons and squashes.

An Aside
In the description of ‘Black Cherry’ Ms. Goldman indirectly references a quote thus, “If one of the greatest services a man can render his country is to add a useful plant to its agriculture…” Do you know who said that? I do. But only because I had read it somewhere else just last week. Is this such a common quote in garden writing that it requires no further explanation…that all of you just naturally know the reference? Or would you just assume that it was a phrase of the author?

by M Sinclair Stevens

9 Responses to post “The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table”

  1. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    I know who said that! Didn’t you tweet it, because I think I just learned it recently?

    I also have Goldman’s book sitting right here on the coffee table, where I browse through it on occasion to look at the gorgeous tomato pics and read some of the descriptions. I concur with you, the text is not so easy on the eyes.

    Happy to read you like ‘Black Cherry’ and that Goldman does, too. I grew it last year for the first time, and am bringing it back this year. You’ve done a great job photographing it with your portrait of the tomatoes from Zanthan Gardens.

    You DO pay attention. Yes, I did just Tweet that quote–if I hadn’t, it probably would have escaped my notice. I found it a bit weird that Goldman didn’t attribute the source of the quote or even indicate that it was a quote. I don’t think it’s in such common usage that the general public would recognize it. But perhaps I underestimate the general public. — mss

  2. From entangled:

    I’m going to have to give Black Cherry another try. I thought it wasn’t as flavorful as Black Russian, but I have such trouble getting good fruit from Black Russian that I keep searching for alternatives. This year’s alternative is Noire des Cosebeuf.

    Have you seen the book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden, by Carolyn Male? I haven’t seen Amy Goldman’s book, but bought the Carolyn Male book a few months ago. From your review, I think Male’s descriptions might be more subjective (she chose 100 tomatoes she likes best), but the photos might be more realistic. The photographer placed a stalk of the plant with fruit trusses on a plain white background, and showed cat-facing, cracking, green shoulders and all.

    But I like the more artful photography. Is your Jeune Flamme perched on a teacup?

    I haven’t seen the Male book yet but I’ll look for it. While Victor Schrager’s photographs are quite artful, I think they are very accurate as well. One thing I like is that he often photographs similar types of tomatoes together so that it is easy to compare them. And, yes, he shows cat-facing, cracking and other irregularities. On page 76, there’s a wonderful full-page photograph of a luscious red globe tomato, ‘Bonny Best’. It takes a moment but then you realize on top of the tomato is a caterpillar completely covered in parasitic wasps. There is also a nice set of photographs showing how to ferment seeds for saving. Finally, yes, that is a Japanese teacup, “cha wan”.

  3. From Pam/Digging:

    I love that photo, MSS. Is the author of the quote TJ? I know he’s a favorite of yours.

    Yes, it is. I quoted it recently in response to some people who think that growing food is an occupation too lowly and unbecoming for a president (or the First Lady). Thomas Jefferson seem to feel the reverse, often chafing at his political duties and pining for the day when his presidency would be over and he could return to his garden. — mss

  4. From Sande:

    I spent some time at a book store looking through this book and totally agree with your recommendation of it. I didn’t buy it, but not because I didn’t want to!

  5. From angelina:

    If my sister hadn’t actually given this to me for my birthday I would go out now and buy it after reading your review of it. It is such a sumptuous book! It was my bedtime reading for two nights and it felt heavy like a treasure in my hands. All books should be that wonderful.

  6. From Annie in Austin:

    What an artistic photo, MSS! The book sounds fun to look at and read, but the advice part would be wasted on one who doesn’t have your sophisticated palate – you know I’ll grow & eat any tomato that will grow down here–even the sneered at ‘Juliet’ ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Tomato flavor is very tricky. I think flavor varies widely based on the growing conditions (heat and drought and amount of sunlight). I don’t expect necessarily for the tomatoes to match Ms. Goldman’s descriptions. But I am very interested in using her vocabulary to expand my own awareness of tomato characteristics and improve my descriptions. My palate is not very discriminating, for wine or tomatoes. But I do like challenging myself to pay attention and see if I can’t taste what the experts taste. — mss

  7. From Marilyn Kircus - Dripping Springs, TX:

    Can I be on your present list? Actually I just went to Amazon and ordered the book. I have 17 tomato plants, many of which are heirlooms. I am just starting to eat my fresh tomatoes. I have several heirlooms in my collection and have seed from three heirloom cherry type tomatoes that I’ll grow for the fall tomatoes.

    One of my favorite recipes is to stack slices (from bottom to top) of onion, eggplant, tomato,and top with Parmesan cheese mixed with bread crumbs and fresh chopped basil. Then bake at 375 for a few minutes until the vegetables are soft and the cheese is melted.

  8. From renee (renee\\\\\\\'s roots):

    Lovely photo, MSS. There ought to be an annual tomato fest for tasting, seed sharing, photo displays, recipes, etc. Hmmm, maybe I’ll try to start one….

  9. From Leigh Williams:

    This is a website I’ve found very useful for information about heirloom tomatoes:

    Laurel’s Heirloom Tomato Plants

    For Laurel’s descriptions of the heirloom varieties she grows, go here and page down to “The Big List”.