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Are heirloom tomatoes worth the buzz -- and the money?

With popular varieties, the power of nostalgia bears fruit

Heirloom tomatoes at Copley Square farmers’ market in Boston. Heirloom tomatoes at Copley Square farmers’ market in Boston. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / July 25, 2012
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I don’t want to be the kind of person who pays more for a tomato than for a lobster. But lobster has fallen to $5.99 a pound, and over the years I’ve bought heirlooms so pricey they require layaway — and don’t always even taste good. It’s time for some introspection.

If you saw me at a farmers’ market, you’d think I was in the grip of Homer Simpson’s “tomacco,” the addictive tomato-tobacco hybrid he grew accidentally. But I am under the power of something, and it’s more powerful than nicotine, or even an heirloom at its best, which is pretty seductive. Hype — that’s what’s got me by the wallet.

Where’s it coming from? I’d like to blame Big Tomato, but although it is true that large commercial growers have invaded the heirloom market, I’m getting mine from independent, earnest farmers, the sort who would play Drew Barrymore’s love interest in a rom-com. And Small Tomato is certainly not the enemy.

Here’s one villain: nostalgia. The “heirloom” in heirloom tomatoes signifies an old variety that was passed down from generation to generation. Heirlooms predate the intensive commercial farming that started in this country after World War II.

Although it’s hard to remember a time before heirlooms (or cappuccino, but that’s another story), in 1998, when the annual Massachusetts Tomato Contest added an heirloom category, many people had never even heard of them, says David Webber, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ program coordinator.

And now? People are trying to relive their childhoods through produce, says James Harvey, of Harvey’s Farm & Garden Center, in Westborough. “There was probably that wonderful tomato they had right out of their grandparents’ garden,” the fifth-generation farmer says, “and now they’re trying to get that in the market.”

Alas, like relatives, not all tomatoes are the kind you really want around. “Some [heirlooms] are fantastic, and some are horrible” Harvey says. “There’s a reason they were left behind.”

That’s also the opinion of tomato researcher Harry Klee, a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In clinical taste tests he conducted, some supermarket-purchased tomatoes, particularly cherry tomatoes, did better than some heirlooms. “I always tell people just because it’s labeled heirloom doesn’t mean it’s good.”

In case you live in an heirloom-free zone, let’s just say that some are absolutely gorgeous shades of yellow and red, and have the decency to be what we consider “tomato” shaped, while others are a red that seems more suited to wine than fruit, or they’re green, and striped, or shaped like a hot pepper, or a beefsteak that’s let itself go.

It’s hard to point to Heirloom Zero — the Brandywine or Striped German that kicked off the revival. Unlike Madison, which came out of nowhere to top the baby-name charts after Daryl Hannah’s mermaid character chose it as her name in the 1984 hit film “Splash,” there’s no celebrity heirloom moment. Justin Bieber hasn’t tweeted about a must-try Banana Legs or Mortgage Lifter. None of the Kardashians have released an heirloom tomato scent (as of press time).

Needless to say, heirlooms have been romanticized in The New Yorker, in a piece last fall by Paul Theroux, and in memoir. In 2008, self-described “accidental tomato farmer” Tim Stark wrote “Heirloom,” and such is the state of the nation’s love affair that there’s now a slot for a “celebrity tomato man.” That’s how New York magazine described Stark when he helped judge a 2010 heirloom contest. (The most expensive variety, All-Natural Eli’s Heirloom, at $7.99 a pound, came in last.)

When I spoke with Stark he traced the rise of heirlooms this way: He used to make deliveries through the back of restaurants; then he was welcome through the front door, even during dinner; and now, “to be honest, I hardly deliver anymore,” he says. “The restaurants come pick up at the [Union Square Greenmarket]” in New York.

Here’s one more sign heirlooms have arrived: they’ve been dissed, merlot-style, in a movie. Not in a “Sideways” remake, but in the 2010 film “The Kids Are All Right,” when the Annette Bening character lets loose an heirloom rant: “If I hear one more person say how much they love heirloom tomatoes,” she says, “I’m going to punch them right in the face.”

I was that person, briefly, after a transcendent tomato salad at Union Square Café, which is just down the street from heirloom central — the Union Square Greenmarket. It was the meal that triggered my heirloom mania. But buying tomatoes is kind of like buying wine, without a “Tomato Spectator” for guidance. Were they picked ripe? What was the soil like? Was it a rainy spring?

With so much I didn’t know — and didn’t even know I didn’t know — it was like deciding on a bottle of chardonnay with price as my only guide. And here’s how I do that: If the $9.99 bottle is good, the $12.99 must be better.

When I asked Michael Leviton, co-owner and executive chef of Area Four, in Cambridge, and owner of Newton’s Lumiere, to help me understand my own behavior, he looked beyond tomatoes: “Part of the problem is you have this epiphanous moment — with a tomato or anything — and then you try and re-create it. That’s sort of the problem with life in general, for you and me, and everyone else,” he says. “No matter what you do, you can’t bring it back.”

But at this point, the heirloom-ification of America is complete. We not only have heirloom carrots and zucchinis and bananas, but also heirloom animals — although in the livestock world, they’re known as “heritage.”

When the author Elizabeth Gilbert recently sought to describe what her great-grandmother would have been like if she’d written her cookbook in today’s food world, she told The New Yorker “. . . she would have had a food truck for sure. She’d be one of those Brooklyn butcher chicks; she’d be doing heritage pig knuckles.”

Meanwhile, with true heirloom season just arriving, I stopped by the farmers’ market on City Hall Plaza last week to see if any were yet available. They were, and even as thunder menaced in the distance, Maureen Harris couldn’t pull herself away from the Striped Germans and Cherokee Purples at the Stillman’s Farm tent. “If they cost $6 a pound they must be good,” said Harris, who oversees the Boston Public Schools’ summer school program. Who is she, after all, to judge? “They don’t look very appealing,” she said, holding up a misshapen specimen, riddled with brown veins, that she fully intended to buy. “But they have that mystique.”

With the rain poised to start, Kate Stillman, an owner, also had price on her mind, namely how many tomatoes would go unsold and end up as feed for her pigs. I couldn’t help but ask about the provenance of those animals. “Yes,” she says, “They’re heritage pigs. Heirloom tomatoes for heritage pigs.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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Now trending on restaurant menus

The foodies are always one step ahead. No sooner do you start name-dropping obscure heirloom vegetables, than you realize the actual insiders have moved on from flora to fauna. Now they’re all about “heritage breed” turkeys, chickens, and cows. Or they’re not even talking about the food itself, but composting.

How can those who feel proud because we sometimes eat organic-ish, or have heard the word “sustainability,” compete in the escalating culinary one-upmanship?

I called Michael LaScola, the owner and executive chef of Nantucket’s American Seasons,and asked him what’s trending. “ ‘Foraged’ is huge right now,” he says, as is “farm to table.” But perhaps even newer are “field to jar” and “sea to spoon” (or, in the case of messy diners, “sea to lap”).

And you’ll know you’re in the “right” restaurant if some menu items have been “chef dug” or “hand picked” — and the words “gourmet” or “artisan” are nowhere in sight. BETH TEITELL