Misshapen, color-streaked, juicy, and bursting with flavor, heirloom tomatoes are the antithesis of the uniformly red and round supermarket hybrids we Midwesterners make do with for much of the year. With memorable names like Green Zebra, Amana Orange, and Brandywine, these old-time varieties, if they’re grown and harvested right, are the most cherished taste of late summer.
Arguably no Midwesterner knows more about heirloom tomatoes than Jon Templin of Butternut Sustainable Farms in Sturgis, Michigan. He grows nearly 10,000 pounds of them each year—30 unique kinds ranging from cherry-size ones to immense five-pounders—and sells virtually his entire crop to Chicago’s best restaurants. Alinea snaps up almost all his highest-grade fruit. Chef Chris Gawronski of Acanto says he has to keep his Butternut Farms tomatoes under lock and key when deliveries come in, because his staff tends to pilfer them. (They’re also available at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, if you’re up for a drive.)
Templin, who is 33 and discovered his passion for farming only recently, says he’s seen the fervor for heirloom tomatoes pick up in the past several years. People are paying more attention to where their food comes from and how it’s raised. “And because we’re in this renaissance of food,” he says, “everyone wants to have the best.” Suffice it to say, most supermarket tomatoes—which Templin says are bred more for appearance than taste—won’t deliver that. “The imperfections are all gone. And as the saying goes, the uglier a tomato is, the better it tastes.”
Fortunately, these are heady times for lovers of gnarly-looking tomatoes. Dedicated farmers like Templin have created seed-sharing networks to preserve and propagate dozens of heirloom cultivars, each with its own flavor profile and beauty: bright yellow Sun Golds that pack a sweet punch; yellow-and-red-marbled Pineapples with lots of juicy flavor; flame-striped Casady’s Follys that are extra meaty and mild.
All heirlooms are not created equal, however. In choosing them, pay attention to how the tomatoes are displayed at your farmers’ market: They should be resting on their sides or their tops, which are generally sturdier, so they don’t get bruised. “That’s one way to tell if you’re getting them from a knowledgeable grower,” Templin says. Sniff them, selecting ones whose bottoms are redolent of the vegetal scent of the tomato vine. And make sure they’re not too cold to the touch, as tomatoes that have been refrigerated will lose their flavor more quickly.
As for how to eat them? “Do it fast,” says Templin. Ripe heirlooms stay at peak flavor and texture for a week after picking. Like a Midwestern summer, their pleasures are fleeting.
Three Tomatoes to Try
Templin says this curiously shaped, hefty yellow fruit is the ideal candidate for sandwiches. “It’s sweet and great for BLTs: big, sturdy, and easy to slice.”
“I love it in a caprese salad,” says Templin, “because it’s got that very classic tomato flavor, meaty and deep. And that purple looks so beautiful on the plate.”
“Its flavor is lighter, a little less acidic. Perfect for tossing into a salad. Every Green Zebra looks different. I could stare at them for hours.”