By this point, we all know that heirloom tomatoes are a thing. We’ve seen them at farmers markets and grocery stores, on restaurant menus and at that dinner party your friend just hosted. We know that sometimes they’re weirdly shaped and colorful and probably…better tasting than regular tomatoes?
But are they really? And if so, why? What are heirloom tomatoes, anyway? These are the questions we ask ourselves when July gives way to August, and tomato season starts coming in hot.
Despite the name, you probably won’t find heirloom tomatoes at an antique store, or in your grandmother’s attic. (Well, you might, but that would be pretty weird.) The tomatoes themselves are not dusty fruits passed down from generation to generation, like old high school yearbooks and silver lockets. The tomato seeds though? Yeah, those are.
The seeds are what make an heirloom tomato an heirloom tomato. They are passed down from season to season, taken by the farmers from the tomato plants that produced the best fruit. This process allows farmers to select for certain desirable traits like juiciness, size, shape, or color. Heirloom tomatoes are also often open-pollinated, which means that they are pollinated naturally, by birds, insects, wind, or human hands. No weird science-y genetic modification here.