So, Where Did This Crazy Heirloom Obsession Come From???

Friday, June 6, 2008

That's her to the right. She's the guilty party. She's the one who got me into this crazy mess. And sometimes, I think she probably wishes she hadn't made that fateful move so many years ago, as it has come to be an absolute obsession for me.

Be as it may -- if you're looking for the reason as to why I grow, eat and blog about heirloom tomatoes and other heirloom vegetables -- the key words are: BLAME VENUS.

This is one of her favorite photos by the way. Taken during our honeymoon cruise down the Mexican Riviera, I think she liked it because the drink matched her dress. I remember the night this photo was taken. I think it was disco night in the lounge. I'll never forget it.

Not soon after this night, Venus and I purchased our first home, and started the process of landscaping our first backyard together. A lot of it was "trial and error" (especially that error part), but we both knew that we wanted raised planter beds for a vegetable garden. It was, about this time, that Venus discovered she had this amazing green thumb. She had never planted so much as a radish before getting married. But when everything she touched bloomed, well, we both knew she had a very special talent.

I had grown gardens since I was a kid. I remember my father's garden of mostly corn and tomatoes, and how he would turn over half of his backyard it seemed to his gardening efforts. And, even though it was very long ago, I remember grilled corn on those lazy summer weekend nights in the backyard.

But, even though I had gardened in the past, my knowledge was extremely limited. In my world, there were three or four types of tomatoes: ACE, Early Girl, Better Boy and Beefsteak. That's it. Tomatoes were red. Tomatoes were round. To suggest anything else was pure blasphemy. Imagine my shock and surprise then, when one of the first tomato starter plants that Venus selected years ago was some strange thing called a "Green Zebra."

"Green Zebra?" Excuse me? My wife must have been mistaken. No matter, because she had me, the "expert," there to guide her. "Tomatoes are not green," I lectured her in the middle of Sacramento's Capital Nursery. "They are red. They are round. Nothing more. Nothing less. Bill Bird will not grow any green tomato in his garden."

My new wife smiled sweetly at me and proceeded to inform me that "I was full of it," and she was going to grow the Green Zebra. And, if I didn't like it, well, I knew where the couch in the living room was located. Not only did she pick out this ghastly thing called the "Green Zebra," she chose another advertised as a "potato leaf plant." This thing was even stranger. It was called "Brandyine."

"Fine," I told her as we both walked out of the nursery. "Suit yourself, I'm planting my standard ACE, Early Girl and Better Boy." I think that she, again, pointed out the directions to the couch in the living room. Then she had the audacity to pick up another plant at Home Depot called "Caspian Pink." I wondered what the heck had happened to my home-grown tomato world. It had been turned upside down. I simply didn't know there were any other varieties besides the standard hybrids.

I learned a lesson that summer that I'll never forget. For, the first moment that I ate a Green Zebra fresh from the vine, I was absolutely hooked. I couldn't get enough of them. And then, when our unstable Brandywine began churning out pink, red, orange and yellow tomatoes, I was in heaven. Where had these come from? Why had I never heard of them? They were absolutely the most wonderful thing I had ever tasted in my life. They were stunning! Why hadn't I been growing these?

Thank goodness for the World Wide Web. It was big enough then to start answering some of my questions, but not all. Still, it was through Yahoo and Google that I kept running across references to a book called "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden." I simply had to have that book. So did Venus.

Author Carolyn Male did a wonderful job of explaining where heirlooms came from, how many of them were actually around (thousands) and, quite frankly, why they were very tough to find during my teenage years in the 1970's. But, with the spread of the internet, came the spreading of knowledge among gardeners. Seed for these wonderful, old varieties of the past soon followed. And, not long after, the country was hooked. This is a "must read" book for heirloom growers, and I'm pleased to tell you that we've planted and continue to plant many of these old, tried and true, varieties.

My obsession, however, didn't end there. In fact, it was just beginning. And my quest for knowledge didn't end with Dr. Male's book. I had also read about various references to the "father of the modern tomato." And, it turns out that Alexander Livingston had written his own book called "Livinston and the Tomato." Sure enough, that book was soon in my library. It was a harder read, since it was written more than a century ago.

Still, that book contained another introduction to the growing obsession: a packet of seeds. Not just any seeds, but the "Paragon." Through my research, I had read about this tomato. If Alexander Livingston was the "father of the modern tomato," then the Paragon was the first born son. It was the first tomato he introduced as a seeds man, through a hybridizing effort that, although standard stuff today, was new and wildly experimental in Livingston's day.

And yes, if you must ask, I started planting seeds that next spring. I started with two Alexander Livingston originals -- the Paragon and the Golden Queen. I had no idea what to expect. This was a first for me. Start from seed? How utterly pioneer-like! Why, just two years ago, there were only three or four kinds of tomato plants, and they were born in six-packs found outside your average Longs or Rite-Aid stores...

WARNING! This is how your obsession starts. If you find your planter garden looking like this in the early spring, loaded with plastic cups containing tomato plant starters, it's too late. You're hooked.

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