Tomatoes from Another Time
Heirloom veggies take gardeners back to their roots.
It had been years since I last grew Brandywines, so last spring I decided to have another go with the late-season heritage tomatoes. I planted two starts in my raised-bed garden, and two more in large pots. But by the middle of summer I thought I’d made a mistake. Their potato-leaf foliage was lush, and they were flowering, but no fruit was yet reflecting the sun. Come to think of it, what sun? Even my pale Norwegian skin couldn’t get a blush from that shy orb. Maybe I should have stuck to reliable, if smaller, short-season tomatoes.
But the Brandywine has long held a mystique for gardeners like me—plant people who see cultivating edibles as a way to connect to our agricultural ancestry. Improbably delicate for a twenty-first-century world, with a skin so thin it seems to bruise if stared at too long, the Brandywine epitomizes what is irresistible about heritage plants: They are what our grandparents grew behind the old farmhouse, literally the seeds of life passed from one generation to the next. Today, while many heirlooms are more available (and more popular) than they’ve been in two generations, you won’t find the Brandywine at your local QFC; the fragile fruit is no match for packing, shipping, and supermarket stacking. Farmers markets, meanwhile, tend to sell out fast. If you want Brandywines, in other words, you’re going to have to do like Grandma and plant them yourself.
Most heirlooms, like most Americans, come from immigrant stock. Standing among my vegetables, lamenting the sad state of the Brandywines, I could see small head lettuce and sugar peas—identical in form and fruit to the ones Thomas Jefferson cultivated, wrote about, and ate. Across the path sat the green beginning of a curly, tapered sweet pepper—said to be the best frying pepper anywhere—brought to New England over 100 years ago by Italian immigrant Jimmy Nardello. Next to that were the striking, green-and-cream variegated leaves of the Fish pepper, whose seeds came to America wrapped in the ragged pockets of Africans forced off slave ships and onto Southern plantations.
In a garden with so much history, I was counting on the Brandywines to pull their weight. I’d germinated the seeds indoors in April—transplanting them to ever-larger pots so they were healthy and strong before I plunged them into compost-enriched earth in mid-May. When planting them outside, I shielded them with the greenhouselike Wall O’ Water plant protectors, which retain soil heat while staving off wind. I had pinched off the little suckers that sprouted from the crotch of the branches to keep the plants focused on a few strong leaders. And soon I would cut foliage away from the fruit, to let in the ripening sun. The only thing left to cultivate now was my patience.
The Brandywines finally produced, late in the summer, as so often happens here with tomatoes. Oh me, of little faith. The beefsteak-style fruit delivered dense slices that became meat for the sort of simple lunch my farming ancestors might have munched on: mouthwatering tomato sandwiches made with whole grain bread, mayonnaise, and just a bit of salt.