In late summer, when good tomatoes are filling the bins at every market, I can’t help going back to my best tomato moment.
I’m a kid in my father’s marvelous vegetable garden, plucking a ripe, hot tomato from a sturdy vine that’s trellised up to my five-year-old eye level. A terrifying hornworm is tearing through the greenery, but I reach past the little monster for the bright red-orange fruit. As I bite through the skin and savor the juicy deliciousness, I hardly notice the slimy tomato seeds dribbling all over my cute little mid-century play dress.
I wish he were still here, my dear old dad, so I could ask him for the particulars. I’m guessing he started those tomato plants from seeds: I can see the packets lined up in a shoebox in one of the workbench drawers. Most likely he ordered hybrid seeds from a catalogue during the snowy Illinois winter and sprouted them under a light in the basement. In the 1950s, the robust and predictable new hybrids were just being introduced, pushing aside heirloom varieties, which were not called heirlooms back then: The tomatoes that people grew in their gardens and saved seeds from to share with their neighbors were simply their favorite tomatoes to grow and eat.
A half-century-plus later, heirlooms are all the rage. In daily conversation, I hear people refer to any expressive-looking tomato as an “heirloom.” But, in fact, many of the best tomatoes at your farmers’ market stand are new varieties developed using classical cross-breeding methods. The growers who do this work—like the two we highlight in this issue—are making better, more flavorful tomatoes, which bring improved outcomes for growing, shipping, and health. These breeders are curious, creative people who can’t help asking, “What if I try this?”
As the stories in this Fall Harvest issue were coming together, I was struck by how many of them feature people who can’t help but ask “what if.” Food has become a frontier for broad innovation, with new ideas about farming, distribution, manufacturing, selling, shopping, cooking, eating, sharing, and reducing waste cropping up daily. As with classical tomato breeding, age-old traditions are the framework for many innovations. But many innovators in this age are also looking to step beyond that frame as they seek ways to address the challenges facing people and the planet. My hope is that the stories we have collected into this Fall Harvest issue will spark more such creativity. And during this abundant harvest season, I hope we have provided within these pages plenty of incentives to get out and participate in our vibrant local food community.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler
P.S. Don’t miss Tomatotopia! It’s happening on September 25 as part of Town Eats, concurrent with the Eat Real Festival at Oakland’s Jack London Square. Edible East Bay staff will be there with our featured tomato breeders. It’s a chance to taste the newly developed tomatoes from Baia Nicchia and Wild Boar Farms and see how they work when prepared in various dishes and mixed into Bloody Marys. Turn to page 5 for more information.
Correction: In last issue’s story, “Gnocchi Is Just Another Noodle,” we neglected to state the full name of Bellanico Restaurant and Wine Bar, where Chef Jonathan Luce prepares rustic Italian cuisine (not Sicilian-inspired). The spelling of the owners’ child’s name is Nicoletta (not Nicolette). We deeply regret these errors.