Magazine article The New Yorker

Heirlooms

Magazine article The New Yorker

Heirlooms

Article excerpt

Slicing a sun-warmed, homegrown, vine-ripened tomato is, first, an aesthetic satisfaction, as formal as dissection. Once the skin is split and the tang of tilled soil released, the fruit offers no resistance to the blade, which slides unchecked, as if through the pulpy meat of a melon. My preferred tomato is a fist-size Brandywine or a sooty, plumlike Black Ethiopian or a red, ribbed Conestoga, none of them very pretty on the outside--the Brandywine often quite ugly, lobed and lopsided, scabby and easily bruised. But all these heirlooms are evenly deep-hued and luscious on the inside, as crimson and soft as mouth flesh.

Like chocolate, maize, and potatoes, the tomato is a New World crop--the names of some of its varieties (Xocolatl, Mahiz, Batata, Tomatl) also travelled from the New World to Europe. Once, when hiking some miles due east from San Pedro de Atacama, at around ten thousand feet, in the rocky foothills of the Andes in northern Chile, I came across an isolated farmer and his terraces of maize. I marvelled at his crooked cobs of multicolored kernels--purple and puce and black and umber--hanging on small, thick stalks. It was the ancient corn. I swapped my baseball cap for a bag of seeds, sneaked them through U.S. Customs, and planted them successfully in Massachusetts. Had I looked farther, guided by Barry Estabrook's "Tomatoland," I might have found some clumps of Solanum chilense, a tomato species that grows wild in that area, or perhaps stands of Solanum pimpinellifolium, the immediate ancestor of the modern tomato.

One of my favorite historical sources, Fernand Braudel's "The Structures of Everyday Life," marks the appearance of tomatoes in Europe with a mention in the 1608 accounting books of a hospital in Andalusia. But Estabrook cites a much earlier mention: "By 1544, just a little more than two decades after their 'discovery,' the Italian herbalist Pietro Andrea Matthioli published the earliest European reference to tomatoes, calling them mala aurea, golden apples." It was only in the seventeenth century that they became an ingredient in the recipes of the Italian cookbook.

I have grown tomatoes my whole adult life. My father grew them. So did both my grandfathers. At first, this seemed like a New England affectation, but, with the advent of supermarket tomatoes, growing one's own (or buying them at roadside stands) became essential. There is almost no connection between an industrial tomato, the bright, gassed, ripened-in-the-truck ball of tasteless pith, and one from the local garden, the juicy pomodoro, the apple of gold. …

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