How growing heirloom tomatoes helped me find community—even in a pandemic.
By Bob Zeni
Working from home can make you weird. Especially deep in winter when the Chicago cold makes the isolation worse. Heavy drinking doesn’t help. “Get a hobby,” my wife Wendy said to me one frigid day twenty-five years ago. “Please!”
“Doing what?” I asked. She suggested starting tomatoes in the basement. “You’re always complaining about the store-bought kind.” I sent away for a Burpee seed catalog and flipped it open. The names of tomatoes began “Early,” “Mighty,” or “Super.” They were described as “Enormous!” “Heavyweight!” “Stupendous!” “Extra High Yield!” or “Bred for Perfection!” I picked the biggest, reddest one.
I started the seeds in early March, planted the survivors in May, and pampered them ’til August, when I harvested my softball-sized triumphs. I cut a slice, popped it into my mouth, and waited for the flavor…and waited for the flavor…and swallowed my disappointment.
That winter, I visited my local library and pored over gardening books and magazines. I discovered there are two types of tomatoes: heirlooms—unadulterated varieties with the tantalizingly aroma and intense taste that have delighted gardeners for generations—and hybrids—bulked-up, mass-produced, lab-spawned varieties specifically bred since the early 1950s for corporate farms and supermarket chains. This genetic tinkering, I learned, had lowered the cost, increased yield and durability, imposed uniformity of size, shape and color, and, apparently, corrupted the delicate balance of acids, sugars and volatile flavor compounds.
Burpee’s offered only a few heirloom varieties. The next summer, I grew one called Cherokee Purple. The fruit wasn’t particularly big, or round, or even that purple. “What’s wrong with these tomatoes?” dinner guests would ask as they stared at the slices arrayed on a salad plate, unsullied by peppers, carrots, or lettuce. Then they’d take a bite. Their eyes would widen. Their chewing would slow. “Where did you get these?” they’d ask.
Emboldened, I added Brandywine the next year. I grew more than my garden could handle. To my shock, neighbors paid for the leftovers. I found established heirloom seed providers: Johnny’s, Territorial, Tomatofest. I marveled at the, well, variety of the varieties. They were gold, ruby, mauve, emerald, mahogany and indigo; striped, mottled and speckled; sweet, smoky, tart, piquant, subtle, robust. They had names like Arkansas Traveler, Banana Legs, Baselbeiter Roeteli, Fence Row, Heart of Compassion, Pienolo del Vesuvio, and Pride of Flanders. I was hooked.
Over the next few years, I tried more varieties. And discovered innumerable ways to fail. Watered too much, too little, too often, or not often enough. Transplanted too early, too late, too deep, or not deep enough. Plants drooped, withered, slumped and died. Gradually, I developed a reliable process. I cleared off more counters in the basement, bought bigger lights and heat pads for better germination, ran out of space, moved the foot-tall seedlings to tables in my daughter’s old bedroom, then to my son’s old bedroom, then to the family room, then to the dining room.
“Bob, I can’t walk in here,” Wendy eventually said. “This isn’t a greenhouse.”
Wait, what? Of course! Why not?
“You’re a genius!” I said. “Plenty of space in the backyard. A big plastic tent. Set it up in spring. With tables or racks or shelves or something. Maybe a heater. And a fan. And a hose, too.”
“Don’t burn the house down,” Wendy said.
That March, I set up a portable greenhouse—five feet wide and six feet long—on the patio. One hundred plants survived. In May, I set up a card table and stuck a sign in the front yard: “Tomatoes for sale.” Neighbors bought a few, leaving me with dozens of extras. I couldn’t trash my tender offspring. I found a newly formed Chicago non-profit, the Gardeneers, that worked with students to build self-sufficient gardens at schools in the city’s food desert neighborhoods. They took the plants and, in late summer, sent photos of the harvest.
The next year, I added yet more varieties, mesmerized by the names—Abe Lincoln, Box Car Willie, Indigo Apple, Julia Child, Paul Robeson, Ping Pong Pink and Thessaloniki; by the shapes—squat, ribbed, fluted, elongated and flattened; and, of course, by the flavors—meaty, juicy, salty, fruity and zesty. Two hundred plants survived. Again the table. Again the sign. Wendy—who’d hawked souvenirs at college football games with her parents when she was growing up—offered tips. Surprisingly, I listened. I moved the table to the front of the house. Displayed the plants by the sidewalk. Changed the sign to “Tomato Plants for Sale.” Made it bigger. I emailed garden clubs. Posted on Facebook. Handed out flyers.
Word spread with each passing year. Tomato enthusiasts began contacting me in January, four months before the sale. I found more seed companies, added more varieties, and grew more plants. The sale became a three-day celebration. Tomato aficionados from all over the Chicago area showed up to buy, socialize, and talk tomato. People drove in from Indiana, Wisconsin and Downstate. One couple from St. Louis admitted they scheduled their annual visit to Chicago to the date of the sale.
Somehow I became an ‘expert.’ Backyard growers connected me with other obsessives. People like Grace Erickson, who runs Indiana Tomato Growers out of her suburban backyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana. She grows at least a thousand every year. And Leigh Melendez, proprietor of Berea, Ohio-based Tomato Monster, who has been at it since 2013. She built a permanent twenty-by-forty-foot greenhouse in her backyard, and works with nonprofits like the Cleveland Seed Bank and the Ben Franklin Community Garden, the longest running community garden in Ohio.
In 2017, a Chicago Tribune columnist wrote a piece about me that ran the morning of the sale. My picture appeared on page two. He dubbed me “Tomato Man.”
The addicts began appearing around dawn. For the rest of the day, people wandered up to the table, talked about the column, and peppered me with questions. “Are you the Tomato Man?” “How do I prevent mold?” “What do I do about cracking?” “Do you save the seeds?” “Do you get blight?” “What causes bottom rot?” “When do I prune?” “Stakes or cages?”
One guy pulled his bovine SUV into the driveway, three feet from my table. “Whoa! People are walking here,” I said, waving my arms. “Park it on the street.” He obliged, then strutted to the table and requested “any big red one.”
I checked my email. The inbox was jammed with messages. Most of the addresses ended with aol.com:
“I live in a retirement community. Have been growing tomatoes for about 60 years.”
“I learned about planting tomatoes from my husband’s father, an immigrant who brought seeds with him from Poland.”
“I hope you will allow me to purchase some of your plants. I am 78 years old.”
“I’d wager that you have more varieties than all the big box stores combined.”
The 2020 sale had seventy varieties and two thousand plants. I figured it would to be my best ever. Then, as the spring wave of coronavirus cases crested, my village banned all driveway sales and curbside pickups. Tomato lovers reached out, imploring me to get them their plants. They were worried about spending a summer without tomatoes. Especially when working from home.
So I began to schedule deliveries – through texts, emails and phone calls. Wendy and my daughter, Rebecca, donned masks and gloves, loaded up the Radio Flyer, and walked the plants around the neighborhood. Rebecca plotted efficient routes around Chicago. Every day for three weeks, we stocked up the car with snacks and water, carefully packed dozens of plants, and hit the road to deliver more than fifteen hundred plants to more than two hundred locations: A bungalow in Bridgeport; the thirtieth floor of a luxury high-rise; an aging six-flat in Uptown; a neoclassical mansion sitting on a quarter acre in one of the toniest pockets of the city, a tumbledown clapboard in Lyons; a palatial McMansion in North Aurora; a single-wide with a tiny defiant garden in a trailer park in Justice. In a Target parking lot in Lemont I met up with three fanatics from towns south of Joliet. One arrived in a brand-new F-150 with extended cab and gun rack. One in a 1970s road yacht in near-mint condition. One in a tricked out Honda Civic street racer. I realized that despite the deep political divisions and economic disparity of our region (and country), we can still bond over the taste of a fresh heirloom tomato.
Most everyone stayed inside, waving from the window or behind a door. A few met me at the curb, but everyone was courteous, respectful, cognizant of the pandemic restrictions (I always wore a mask and gloves) and appreciative of the extra effort. At a house in Riverside, the owner was swinging a shovel bank and forth, pacing among the bags of peat moss and a mound of soil in her driveway. “Thank God you’re finally here!” she said. Other comments: “You’re wonderful!” “Absolutely thrilled!” “Everyone is so delighted!” “You’ve saved our summer!”
Gratifying, but after 2017, I was no longer shocked at the devotion of tomato fanatics. That year, customers with white hair and tissue-paper skin—and there were a lot of them—came looking for a specific variety: “Rutgers,” “Celebrity,” “Hillbilly,” “Avalanche” or “Teardrop.” Many were intent on bending my ear about a relative’s tomatoes. A gentleman sporting a straw boater leaned on the table and rhapsodized about the tomatoes his uncle once grew on the family farm—the intense flavor, warm summers, languid pace, sacred quiet and lightning bugs in Mason jars with punctured lids on nights “when you could still see the stars.”
“Oh my, oh my,” one woman had said when she bent close to read the label on one pot. “You have Prudence Purple. I’ve searched for these for decades. My grandfather grew these…”
The variety’s actual name is Pruden’s Purple. I’d started to correct her, but fell silent when she reached in her purse, took out a white, embroidered handkerchief and wiped away tears.
As I should’ve known all along, I’m selling more than tomato plants. ■
Bob Zeni is a writer, editor and designer in the Chicago area. He also grows tomatoes.
Cover image courtesy Bob Zeni, edited by Njaimeh Njie.
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