Our first ripe tomatoes of 2010!
I almost can’t believe it. It’s way too early.
For lunch I harvested two Cherokee Purple. The one that made it into the portrait above had some light scarring and cracking on the skin, probably due to recent dramatic swings in moisture levels in this region. Note the classic green “shoulders” which Cherokee Purple and many other dark, “black,” and “purple” heirlooms feature. The tomato in the picture is ripe, I assure you, in spite of wearing a bit of green still.
The other tomato was one of those deformed-looking monsters the heirloom varieties are so famous for producing, really quite unattractive. I learned last summer in my dealings with heirlooms not to care too much about the appearance of these fruits, though, because the taste was so spectacular. However, in this case the small, lumpy one was mushy on the inside. F. was brave enough to try the portion that still looked edible, but pronounced it “bitter.”
The flesh of the cracked one was not mushy, but a bit too juicy to be ideal, and the taste was only so-so. There was only a hint of that complex flavor that last summer made us both Cherokee Purple fans for life. I definitely wasn’t wowed.
Quite a disappointment when I compare it to last year’s experience of this famous tomato.
I figure at least four circumstances are contributing to that disappointment:
It is very early in the season. And in spite of our temperatures hovering in the August range for the last two weeks — as I type this currently 95° F/35° C outside, with a heat index (what the humidity makes it feel like) of 100° F/38° C — the plants must surely know the difference. My first Cherokee Purple fruits came last year in late August.
These might just be the best the plant can crank out on such short notice, even basking in unseasonably warm temperatures.
I planted four of this heirloom in this season’s garden, since we loved it so much last year. The three other plants have healthy foliage and are a bit taller than this plant — but have yet to blossom. Maybe this plant is just a freak, but a friendly and enthusiastic freak, intent on delivering fruit to us in mid-June. At least some of the early-fruiting wonders that Northern tomato growers depend upon for their crops must once upon a time have begun life as just this kind of freak, popping up unbidden in the garden to surprise and delight the gardener.
Heirloom seeds are expected to vary from one another, because unlike hybrids they are still participating in the evolutionary dance, and so their genes can and do have mutations that would allow them to participate in the genetic race for adaptation — if we humans weren’t already calling the shots. (For instance, if the quality of these fruits does not improve soon, I’ll be sure to pull up that plant and not save seed from it for future years. I’ll choose my seed carefully from the healthiest, most prolific plants with the tastiest ripe fruits.)
The rainfall has been very erratic. It seems to be settling in for a more normal pattern since last week, i.e. hot days with heat lightning and those occasional thunderstorms whose massive clouds seem to boil up from nowhere on the horizon, formed from nothing more than the dull, metallic heat of the afternoon. These are the kind you can smell coming, and usually I feel them on my skin. F. doubted my intuition of them at first, but now even he is getting the hang of sensing their arrival.
We usually get at least one good, soaking rainstorm per week. But this dry-spell-followed-by-flash-floods pattern is not good for tomatoes. In fact, I’ve read that for the best, most concentrated tomato taste, it’s best to have lots of moisture as the blossoms are setting fruit, then taper off as fruit are forming, and give almost no water as the fruit are ripening. We’ve pretty much had the opposite weather pattern.
I’ve gone months without a garden-fresh tomato. Until about a month ago, I even refused to buy tomatoes, finding the grocery store versions insipid and insulting. They really should rename those things: they do not deserve the name “tomato.” I finally gave in when the first ripe specimens began to arrive from Florida in late April. They weren’t home-garden quality, but you could actually smell “tomato” coming from their skins.
But in all those months of waiting, surely I’ve built up a mighty tomato hunger — and dear Cherokee Purple was enshrined in my mind as the best of the best. Perhaps I put it on a pedestal too high for any mere mortal tomato to reach in reality? Maybe, just maybe my memories of the taste of this heirloom are skewed toward impossible perfection.
Still, first tomatoes of the season on June 14th… I’m crossing my fingers that’s surely a sign of good things to come this summer. Personally, I’ve never had a tomato season kick off this early.
For my birthday, my sister gave me a brand new bamboo cutting board, and my husband gave me an unbelievably sharp tomato knife. (Do my loved ones know me well or what?)
Who could have imagined I’d be employing both new tools on the first ripe tomato a mere week later?