Juicy heirloom tomatoes are a reason to celebrate with family and friends.
Basket of Tomatoes
Credit: Van Chaplin; Styling Mindi Shapiro Levine

A simple get-together can become a mini-vacation for the mind and spirit. It is a good break from your daily routine. If you factor a favorite food into the occasion, things get even better.

That's what Cindy and George Martin, owners of The Tasteful Garden in Chulafinnee, Alabama, discovered when they hosted a tomato-tasting party with friends Rod and Lori Palmer (Owl's Hollow Farm, Gadsden, Alabama) and Will and Laurie Moore (Moore Farms, Woodland, Alabama). They sipped wine, sampled their homegrown tomatoes, and compared notes on favorite heirloom selections.

Tomatoes always spark lively conversation. "It's like people picking a dog," Cindy says. "They seem to choose a tomato that reflects their personality."

Old-Fashioned Flavor
What does an heirloom tomato have that the new hybrids lack? "They offer more of everything," Cindy explains. "If a tomato is sweet, an heirloom is incredibly sweet. If a tomato is acidic, an heirloom selection is more so."

In the taste comparison, the men agree that ‘Cherokee Purple' is number one. "This tomato has a rich, complex flavor," Will says.

"If I can get someone to taste a ‘Cherokee Purple,' they're going to say ‘That's the best tomato I've ever had,' " George claims.

Rod adds, "Sliced with a little salt, it doesn't get any better."

Each of the ladies, on the other hand, picked her own favorite. Cindy's choice is ‘Rose de Berne.' "It's usually my first tomato of the year. I like a nice round tomato flavor," Cindy says.

Laurie Moore loves the yellow and green selections. "I enjoy ‘Aunt Ruby's German Green' and ‘Green Zebra,' " she states.

Lori Palmer prefers another old favorite. "When you eat a ‘Brandywine' off the vine, you realize it's a different kind of tomato," she says.

The Facts of Flavor
George Martin demystifies the tomato's flavor traits.

  • Dark-skinned tomatoes deliver the most acidic flavor.
  • Yellow and orange selections are the sweetest.
  • Red ones find balance between the two, with moderate acidity and sweetness.

Ripen Them Right
Will Moore suggests the best way to harvest your tomatoes for optimum flavor.

  • Harvest a day or two before the tomato is fully ripe.
  • Pick the fruit early in the morning before it heats up for the day.
  • Let fruit sit on the kitchen counter until ready to eat. Do not refrigerate your tomatoes.

Secrets to Success
Here are Rod Palmer's thoughts on growing the perfect heirloom tomato.

  • Plant seedlings deep so the first set or two of branches is below the soil line.
  • Put a handful of lime in the hole when planting. Heirlooms require a good dose of calcium to prevent blossom end rot. Pelletized lime converts to calcium as summer wears on.

Healthy Benefits

  • Tomatoes are loaded with vitamin C and phytochemicals that promote good health.
  • Growing your own tomatoes and other produce lowers the risk of food-borne illnesses occasionally found in mass-produced fruits and vegetables.

"Taste of Summer" is from the August 2008 issue of Southern Living.