Sunday, July 3, 2011


The Great Depression of the 1930s produced a generation of Americans who often proved to be most adept at finding innovative solutions to the problems of their day. For example, take a West Virginian named Charles M. Byles, who had been farsighted enough to locate his service station at the base of a steep hill famous for causing radiator troubles for passing road travelers. Thus he was perfectly situated to introduce to customers (at one dollar each), a tomato plant he had spent six years developing through a system of pollination and selection in his own back yard. Soon, the tomato’s fame had spread far and wide, and Charlie Byles was able to pay off his $6, Radiator Charlie’s tomato, “Mortgage Lifter”, is still around, and one of my personal favorites.

Each summer, small gatherings of serious tomato lovers get together for “blind” tasting sessions around the country, and each year, my own preferences are largely validated. Among open-pollinated, heirloom varieties, either “Brandywine” or “Peron” get the highest mark for real down-home honest-to-goodness deliciousness, with other old-timers like “Stone”, “Bonny Best”, “Ponderosa” and “German Pink” getting high marks. For sheer size and great flavor, I also vote for “Dinner Plate”, “Boxcar Willie”

(a 1950s New Jersey ‘mater honoring the stage name of Grand Ole Opry musician, Lecil Travis Martin), and the original “Oxheart”. For their unusual beauty and dimension, I like the bi-color “Pineapple” and “Georgia Streak”, with a special mention for the novel and convoluted shape of Italy’s “Costoluto Genovese”.

The term “heirloom” usually attaches to a variety which is more than fifty years old, and is a true non-hybrid, i.e. open-pollinated. “Brandywine” for instance is an old Amish variety which has been around since 1885, an indeterminate type with potato-like leaves. “Peron” comes originally from Argentina and was introduced by the Gleckler Seed Company as a “sprayless” and high vitamin C variety around 1951.

It is worth remembering that even though the principal virtue of an open-pollinated vegetable is the fact that it will reproduce its own kind, it still offers the backyard grower the opportunity for improvement through selection. For instance the particular “family” of the “Brandywine” variety I acquired from my Kansas brother in 1983 has morphed into my own sub-variety: Each year, I save the seeds from the first fruit to ripen, and from the fruit of the largest size. Through the process of natural selection, I am striving to achieve those two “improvements” over a period of years, in addition to arriving at a sub-type which does best in my particular growing environment.

While I am a big fan of “seed-saving” via heirlooms, I am always looking for the best in hybrids as well, especially those which offer disease-resistance and a local growing affinity. I always grow some “Early Girls”, “Better Boys” and “Celebrity”, for example. We have been eating some of these continuously indoors since Christmas. I have usually found “San Marzano” to be the most productive Roma-type paste and canning tomato, but we usually end up buying a bushel or two from commercial growers since growing space is at a premium.

The American continent has given the world a dozen of its most important vegetable plant species, from the potato and squash to maize corn and the chili pepper. Another “native American” was known to the Mayan Ancients as the tomatle, before finding a home in Italy as the “poma d’oro” (golden apple). It took another century before that fruit - now in a mostly red skin, - found its way back to our shore.

Title Photo: At the center are a clutch of “Brandywine” heirlooms, with a handful of “Perons” to their right and a basket of “San Marzano” paste tomatoes in the background.

One of my favorite bi-colors, the giant “Pineapple” heirloom features alternating red and gold rainbows of color which enhance the sweet, delicate flavor of this old-time selection.

Weighing out at nearly two pounds, another bi-color worth raising is the beautifully- marked “Georgia Streak”, a longtime southern treasure. It is a most impressive slicing tomato.

All Photos by Al Cooper


  1. Hi Al,
    How are you? I loved this article. It made me want to find more stories about how the Mortgage Lifter tomato got its name, and I found this great website:

    I think it's an NPR clip, but I'm not sure) It has soundbites of an interview done with the man who named the tomato. It's really interesting.

    Anyway, how are you and Shirley doing? I hope you're well. I came to Rockville in May and chatted with you for a few hours about Rockville's history and about small towns. I've been in the process of transcribing the different interviews I've done with people in Rockville, including Jim and Carol, and I'm getting closer to a specific idea for my thesis. I'm really excited! I'm also taking a folklore class now about food and folklore, and foodways. And now I come to you in search of a story! (Because you are the master storyteller, after all!) :) For my next assignment, I have to collect a story that has to do with the origin of a food, of a dish, a recipe, or a food custom. And it can be a personal narrative, myth, legend, or other forms--it doesn't really matter. I was excited to get this assignment, because I knew you would be a great person to come to for a story. In fact, since I knew I was taking this class, I've been looking forward to getting a story from you, because you know an amazing amount of history and stories about food.

    Will you and Shirley be around this weekend? I'll be coming down for Rockville Days, and I would love to stop by and say "hi". I'll be bringing a book for you. It's called "Once Upon a Town." Have you read it? I haven't read it yet, but it came highly recommended by my folklore teacher. It looks like a great read.
    Anyway, I hope this finds you doing well, and I look forward to hearing from you!
    Have a great day,
    Tori Edwards

  2. Also, I forgot to ask for your email address. I thought I had it, but I don't. My email is