Tim Stark’s Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer was a jolly good read. The opening sentence hooked me: An unsustainable writer’s life—hunkered down at a desk on the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone— proved to be the soil in which the farmer within me took root. Tim Stark knows writing. He knows hard work. And he definitely knows tomatoes. Heirloom is a narrative of the starts and setbacks, the disdain of local farmers and the high praise of five-star chefs, the doubts and difficulties and the joys of growing heirloom tomatoes.
An heirloom tomato, according to Wikipedia, is “an open-pollinated (non-hybrid) heirloom cultivar of tomato. Heirloom tomatoes are grown for historical interest, access to wider varieties, and by people who wish to save seeds from year to year.” If you are looking for a practical manual on how to find seeds and grow heirlooms, this is not your book. At best you can glean names and descriptions of varieties: Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Garden Peach, Plum Lemon, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, Black Drim, Extra Eros Zlatolaska, Zapotec Pleated.
No, this is a book to read for the joy of a ripe garden tomato.
For all their efforts to make the homegrown variety as readily available as Murphy’s Oil Soap—from hydroponics to gene manipulation to those non-stop comfort flights from the greenhouses of Holland—the agro-industrialists have succeeded only in stocking the grocery shelves with expensive tomatoes that appear to bear the succulent richness of the fully ripe, just-picked specimen. To fall for them is a bit like talking dirty on the telephone for $3.99 a minute. You pay a lot of money and you still don’t get the real thing. 45
The bits on the Mennonite and Amish neighbors delighted me. Stark describes one Old Order Mennonite neighbor—a resourceful friend and mentor—as my guide to all things Anabaptist. That’s the Pennsylvania part of the equation. The other side includes the gourmet chefs who come down to Manhattan’s farmer’s market—Greenmarket—to peruse and purchase produce. It is fun to watch Tim weave through these disparate worlds.
Some of the farmers who live near me are amused almost to the point of intoxication by my techniques. 191
Again and again, we were written up: The holy grail of tomatoes. Best tomatoes on the planet. Once the laughingstock of all nightshade-dom, our tomatoes graced the cover of Gourmet. 88
I cried reading about the week after 9/11, the peak of harvest, and how providing tomatoes for meals for volunteers brought a slice of normalcy and stability to a city reeling with loss.
Again, I am inspired to try my hand at growing heirloom tomatoes. I’ve been inspired before, but haven’t followed the inspiration with perspiration. Or even initiation to find heirloom seeds.