Wednesday, August 20, 2008


.“You know what they said when the old lady kissed the cow…there’s no accounting for taste.” Old Elder family saying.

They’re celebrating in Atlanta these days. Not because the Dogs were the preseason pick for number one in the nation for the first time ever. That seems to make everybody a bit nervous. But they’ve had rain! Though Lake Lanier is still low, this July’s rainfall was above average and watering is again allowed, though there are still some restrictions.

Judging by the abundance of produce at one small Farmers’ Market, in the parking lot of St. Phillips Cathedral on Peachtree Road in Buckhead, there’s a bumper crop of vegetables – and not your ordinary vegetables.

I’ve been reading, and writing, about heirloom vegetables, primarily tomatoes, for the past two years. I planted some heirloom tomatoes last year and some more this year, but had not had much success. I wanted to taste them and see if they really were as good as promised. Wanting some to keep and some to give some away, I chose four, maybe five, varieties, picked two of each variety and divided them into two bags.

“That’ll be $17.95,” said the girl behind the table. Gulp. That was somewhere around two dollars a tomato. These had better be good.

I gave some away, supplementing my gift with some less expensive hybrids, and brought home one of each variety for the First Annual Tomato Taste Test – held in the kitchen, just before dinner on Sunday night. The pricey heirloom tomatoes would be judged against hybrid tomatoes straight from the side bed, just picked that afternoon. These hybrids were planted in fresh, fertilized soil back in the spring. They get regular watering from the sprinkler and have stayed healthy all summer without additional fertilizer or insecticides.

The judges of the F.A.T.T. Test were my husband Hank, our son David, and me. Each type of tomato was sliced and put on a separate plate, with a light sprinkle of salt.

We found, not surprisingly, that after thirty-nine years of marriage, Hank and I have similar taste. The bright red, juicy, fresh out of our garden tomato was our favorite. Were we influenced by the fact that it was red and juicy and we knew it was fresh? Probably. David liked his a bit firmer and liked one of the heirlooms better.

“Aunt Ruby’s German Green,” “Georgia Streak,” and ”Black from Tula” were the heirlooms we tried. The comments about them were inconsistent. We thought the heirlooms were tasty, but hardly worth two bucks each.

I’m not sure what I expected. I suppose the heirloom tomato sensation is, in fact, a reaction to those awful grocery store tomatoes, the ones grown for their thick skin and shippability that are totally lacking in taste. If that’s your basis for comparison, there’s no contest. The hybrid vs. heirloom race is about even until you consider that heirlooms are a little harder to find and harder to grow. Then hybrid’s the winner I think.
What’s the difference between a hybrid, a heirloom, and a genetically modified tomato? Heirloom vegetables are simply vegetables that come from seed that has been saved and grown for a period of years. To be capable of being saved, they must be open pollinated, meaning the seeds produce seedlings just like the parent plant.
Hybrids, the kind of tomatoes we usually grow and buy at the local farmers’ market, are crosses between different plants in an effort to get the best features of both parents. The reason varieties such as Better Boy, Early Girl, Marion (developed at Clemson – my friend Judy’s favorite) have survived to be grown in back yard gardens is that they are fairly easy to grow, are resistant to disease, and they’re pretty tasty, especially when you pick them straight off the vine.
Genetically modified plants have been genetically altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering. The FDA promises us they are safe and are being developed so that we can buy a tasty tomato at Kroger in the middle of the winter. With some exceptions – the Romas and Grape Tomatoes aren’t so bad – I’d say they need to keep working on it.
Give me the Aiken Farmers’ Market any day, where the vegetables are reasonably priced and taste as good as any I know. Hollie Gartman tells me she hopes to have sweet Silver King corn until September to go with the table full of tomatoes she displays every week.
But I’m still pulling for the Bulldogs.