Your Early Girl is the tomato for the competitor, that Washington type who needs to win, wants the scoop, will come home to hold that baby aloft and smirk across the backyard fence. Not great eating, your Early Girl, but first, yes.
The true tomatohead disdains the Early Girl. She's not even in the garden. True tomatoheads worship the heirlooms, your Cherokee Purple, your Aunt Lillian, your Aunt Ruby, with her faint blush at the bottom.
The heirlooms are the fruit of yesteryear, fat and happy globes of seduction, all yielding flesh and bursting flavor, and their time is now. Those bewitched by them do not leave town deep in August. Their summer is ordered by the rhythm of ripening. They rejoice in the hot sun that leaves everyone else muttering, and they harvest their bounty. They eat them standing up at the kitchen sink, letting the juice run down their chins. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, all tomatoes all the time.
"I'm in tomato heaven these days," says Pat Sullivan, a psychiatric nurse case manager who has her personal stock behind her Baltimore house and 55 more plants on two other plots nearby. "I planned my vacation for June. Now, it's just too intense. It's such a big responsibility, all these tomatoes." She has to pick not only the fruit but also the recipents.
"I'm very particular as to whom I give my tomatoes," she says. "I do not believe you give your tomatoes away to an unappreciative audience." She's heard that one friend's brothers "have taken these tomatoes in bags and just leave them at work. That is a sacrilege! These tomatoes must be appreciated. They must be worshiped."
If you have been given Sullivan's tomatoes and do not call her to say they were the best tomatoes you ever ate, "well," she says, "you're not getting them again." And why tomatoes? "They're easier to deal with than men," Sullivan says.
Like most collectors, serious tomato hobbyists are reluctant to acknowledge their obsession, even after repeatedly falling asleep on winter nights with seed catalogues resting on their chests. Of course they must have the Purple Calabash that Thomas Jefferson might have grown at Monticello! Or the Black Krim, maroon and green, from Russia! The Nebraska Wedding! The Pink Accordion, with its heavily ruffled sides! The Riesentraube, a German winemaker's cherry tomato that grows in clusters of 40. ("Can't wait to make my first batch of tomato wine!" posts an enthusiast on a tomato Web forum.)
"I don't know that 'fanatical' is the proper adjective," protests Sheryl Hovey, then allows that when she and her husband were house-hunting, "one of the absolute requirements was proper sunlight. A lot of people think that is weird."
And: There are 15 plants in the garden by their house in Oakton and, outside it, another 15 or 20 volunteer plants that seeded from last year's burst fruit -- "my husband says pull them out, but we tend to leave them in; we're sick" -- and more in pots all around the deck. "So 30 or 40," she says. "Not too many."
"I'm not a fanatic," insists Pat Brodowski, who, as historian and educator at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster, Md., plants and tends the heirloom kitchen garden there. This year she planted 24 tomato varieties, which is scaled back from last year's 70. Why, she knows one woman who has more than 100 varieties, and another who drove up to the museum one day, her VW packed to the roof with 60 plants grown from seed.
An exploration of the tomatohead world leads to Lawrence Davis-Hollander, a Massachusetts ethnobotanist, who grows about 80 varieties a year and founded the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, a seed-saving and propagation program.
Fanatics, he explains, are "the serious people with their own pet list. They have grown three or four or five thousand varieties over their lifetime. They completely have other jobs. They save and keep organized all those seeds. Those are the fanatics."
The object of such intense desire is a simple pleasure, really, but one grown rare enough. Americans have adjusted to the hard red mealy thing marketed all year around as the tomato, but their taste buds have stubbornly refused to adapt. Give anyone a sample of a homegrown, vine-ripened heirloom, and his eyes will light up. "Oh, that's what a tomato is supposed to taste like!" he will say.
Native to Central America, the tomato was not a welcome resident in the typical American's garden until the 1830s, says Brodowski, who has researched the fruit's lineage using gardening guides dating back to Revolutionary times. "There was a distrust of the tomato," she says, "because of its relationship to deadly nightshade," a plant in the same botanical family. "And then people tended to look down on it. It was a staple of Spanish and Portuguese food," she says, not perceived as proper by English, German and Irish settlers.
A red currant tomato, a tiny red climber found on the beaches of Peru, did make its way here, where it was dried and served as a kind of tomato fig. In the Victorian era, macaroni and cheese with tomatoes became an acceptable ethnic Italian entry in American cuisine, home gardening became a hobby and tomato collections developed, becoming ever more colorful and exotic.
To be considered heirlooms, tomato varieties generally have to be more than 50 years old and naturally pollinated. The description attached itself to fruits and vegetables because families saved seeds and passed them down, generation to generation, like the silver flatware or the Irish lace tablecloth brought over from County Cork. These older varieties began to disappear from the seed catalogues after World War II. By the 1960s, home gardeners were so dazzled by the science developed at the powerhouse agriculture research universities -- disease-resistant! unbelievable producer! uniform red color! so supersonic we've named a hybrid that! -- that they abandoned these previously treasured strains for ones engineered to last longer and ship better.
But soon enough, epicureans and back-to-earth proponents were renouncing such homogeneity and poking around to reclaim the botanical diversity and finer flavor of the past.
Some seed companies had donated their stock to the Agriculture Department, which maintains an exhaustive seed collection. Exchange cooperatives started to trade seed held in family collections; one of the oldest, Seed Savers Exchange, now maintains 24,000 rare vegetable varieties at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa.
Davis-Hollander, whose "Tomato Festival Cookbook" offers lore and recipes for heirlooms, retrieved USDA seeds and re-propagated varieties from the second half of the 19th century. He is particularly fond of Paragon, an 1870 tomato bred in Ohio. "It's a really good, pink, sweet tomato," he says. "And the Brandywine is certainly a great tomato -- the Burgundy of tomatoes, robust, forward flavor, beefy."
In the heirloom garden, Brodowski has grown the Valencia and the Earl of Edgecombe, both of which look like oranges, and the Wonder Light, which is shaped like a lemon. Arrange them along with the Garden Peach, a yellow fruit with fuzzy skin about the size of an apricot, and the green grape tomato, "and you can have a fruit bowl of tomatoes," she says. "It's very fun, and just beautiful."
At the farmer's markets in Manassas, Warrenton and Dale City where he sells his heirlooms, John Wright sees his customers "looking funny at them. They think they're strange. 'Don't you have any plain old red tomatoes?' they want to know." He sends them home with a free small fruit, and in a couple of weeks, they're back for four or five pounds of his oddly shaped red, striped, yellow and orange delicacies.
When he first took up tomato farming on his 16 acres in Midland, Va., Wright stuck with the common hybrids known to most backyard gardeners. Now, heirlooms are all he grows. They are a little more prone to disease, but plenty easy to grow in this region, he says. His favorite is the deep rose pink, deliciously old-fashioned-tasting Mortgage Lifter, so named because its instant popularity is said to have helped the West Virginia farmer who produced it pay off his debt.
For passionate gardeners, heirlooms are particular pleasures, tasty stunners coaxed from sun, soil, rain and the past, savored and gone.
"It's like drinking wine. It's the fruit of the earth," says Sullivan, her back aching in Baltimore. "It's a celebration of summer."
She thinks about her very favorite, Aunt Ruby's German Green, a voluptuous chartreuse beauty, sassy and spicy like apple pie.
"She's gonna win a contest someday," says Sullivan. "She's gonna be on the cover of Playboy, that Aunt Ruby."
Hold the lettuce: An heirloom pie by Pat Brodowski, historian and educator at the Carroll County Farm Museum.