What makes an heirloom an heirloom?
Heirloom tomatoes are instantly recognizable at the store. Their wide variety of size (from tiny to huge) and their intricate, varied coloration make them stand out from more standardized commercial varieties, such as Roma or Beefsteak. They also tend to be far more expensive than standard tomatoes, which can cause sticker shock at the cashier counter. Why is that? What makes an heirloom an heirloom?
Heirloom cultivars are any variety of plant that has been handed down from before the advent of large-scale, industrialized agriculture. Before industrialization, a huge variety of different species of foods were grown for human consumption. Seeds were handed down over generations, leading to highly specialized cultivars that varied by region and climate. With the adoption of industrialized agriculture and its processes, such as mono-cropping and mechanized picking, farmers began to plant hybrid crops in order to standardize fruit size, increase yields, and reduce sensitivity to drought and frost. While these changes were fantastically successful in improving crop yields and lowering prices, they also dramatically reduced the variety of cultivars eaten by humans. Industrial growers introduced hybrid varieties with a genetic mutation that causes the un-speckled red color seen on most grocery store tomatoes. However, this mutation also reduces the tomato’s ability to produce natural sugars, reducing the sweetness of the fruit.
In reaction to this trend (and as part of the broader spread of the organic food movement), foodies and organic lovers began to value the diversity and sweet taste of heirloom tomatoes. The combination of demand and the relative difficulty of growing heirlooms is what causes the high prices at the store. If you can afford them, however, heirlooms are a fun and tasty way to celebrate the summer season!