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Pass Down Those (Heirloom) Tomatoes!

By Matthew Steplewski

Does Beefsteak sound like an appetizing name for a tomato? Are you always looking for a perfectly round, vibrantly red “off-the-vine” tomato? Think about the last time that you visited a grocery store hunting for fresh tomatoes. You were probably zooming through the vegetable section, looking for a perfectly bright red medallion for your homemade tomato sauce or salad. But did you ever wonder why every single tomato was so perfect? Well, I did. And let me tell you why.

Before I went off to college, I spent every other weekend visiting my grandfather. Typically, I helped him with chores around his property or ate dinner at his home. My grandfather loves to garden and one of the many vegetables that he grows each spring and summer are tomatoes. He grows so many that he’s constantly asking my family if we want to take some home. Sometimes, he demands that we take some home because he has too many. I never really thought about it back then, but as I grew older, I realized that his tomatoes looked and tasted different from those perfect red globes sold in most stores. My grandfather’s tomatoes definitely tasted better than the store-bought ones, and they even looked nicer with the different colors and textures with the skin even bursting open sometimes. That’s when I got to thinking and wondering why they were so different and, in my mind, so much better.

This is when I learned, from my grandfather, that they were actually heirloom tomatoes. Typically, you can find heirloom tomatoes at specialty markets or Farmer’s Markets for quite a bit of money. What makes these tomatoes so special--in my opinion--is in the name itself, heirloom. Heirloom tomatoes are characterized as varieties of tomatoes whose seeds have been passed down from generation to generation of growing. They are open-pollinated, which means that pollinators like bees and flies are allowed to spread pollen freely among plants. This promotes diversity in heirloom tomatoes and means they can vary widely in color, taste, and shape. Heirlooms range from from nearly black to green; earthy to tomatoey; perfectly round to almost bell pepper shaped. Already sounding different than your typical perfect store-bought tomato, right?

One of the major differences between an heirloom tomato and a “generic” tomato is their production and distribution. Many Beefsteak and “off-the-vine” varieties of tomatoes are mass-produced and designed for what is known as the “big rig transportation system”. This means that they are often grown in mass quantities using special hormones such as Gibberellin to slow growth and aging of the fruit. This allows growers to pick the fruit from the plant before it has ripened (when the tomato is still green) to transport to supermarkets across the nation. Gibberellin is a growth hormone that is found in tomatoes and can be used to regulate the growth and maturation of the tomato. It is one of the most widely used growth hormones in the world when it comes to production of crops such as tomatoes. In contrast, heirloom tomatoes are naturally grown with often no additional growth hormones. This is why heirloom tomatoes do not last as long as these hormone-filled red tomatoes. Because they do not contain any preservatives and are picked when they are ripe, they have a shorter shelf life than mass-market tomatoes. This is why they are harder to find at supermarkets but typically found at Farmer’s Markets, specialty stores, or in backyard gardens that can accomodate the shorter shelf life.

Heirloom tomatoes are popping up more and more throughout organic produce stores, in articles, recipes, cookbooks, and many more areas. But I want to spread the word about these delicious and unique tomatoes. Imagine seeing more varieties and being able to choose different colors, shapes, and sizes of an heirloom tomato rather than just your boring, everyday Beefsteak or “off-the-vine” tomato. The possibilities are endless (and delicious!).

Matthew is 22 years old and a full-time student at the University of Pittsburgh. In all his spare time, he works as a Firefighter and EMT. He is originally from the Philadelphia area.

Photo Credits: Vince Lee vklee [CC0] (], via Wikimedia Commons


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