A Southern Night story

Growing tomatoes in the hot, humid south is an intricate dance of planting in raised beds to avoid floods, dodging diseases and beating the heat. But, the rewards are huge. I spent a decade growing heirloom tomatoes on the steamy Texas Gulf Coast, south of Houston. Southern Nights performed and tasted better than any heirloom I grew. Transplants have to be started by the end of January so they can be set in the ground on the last day of March. You can also start seeds in late July and set out transplants the last week of August for a second crop.

Determinates are favored in any tomato, because their crops will set before June 1, when nightly temperatures rise. Second crops will flower in early October when nights cool. Tomato pollen becomes sterile with nights are above 72°F, and flowers don't set fruit. With these constraints, growing revered beefsteak heirlooms like Brandywine is difficult. But, Southern Night is a determinate, meaning it sets its entire crop within a two to three week period. The developing black beefsteaks love the heat to put on size and ripen to their signature deep brown, almost black, color.

Many of the photographs in my new book, Heirloom Flavor, of black tomatoes were taken in my Texas garden where their color was deeper and more intense than those grown further north, in places like Seed Savers Exchange's Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa.

The heat also intensifies flavor. What is usually a wonderful sweet-acid balance in Southern Night becomes a complex blend of aged burgundy, fruity sugars and salt in torrid Texas. To bite into a slice is exquisite. In a climate where fungal diseases run rampant, Southern Night resists all the usual ones such as early blight, too.

With these wonderful attributes, I felt that the Russian heirloom was the perfect tomato for commercial growers in the Rio Grande Valley, where much of the fresh tomatoes sold in winter are grown. So, I talked with Dr. Jerry Parsons of the Texas A&M Research Station in San Antonio about the tomato's potential.

He suggested that I gather seed so he could trial it in Uvalde, Texas, where the university had its vegetable research fields. I grew numerous Southern Night plants, processed the seeds and gave Parsons seven pounds with which to experiment. In late January, acres of Southern Night transplants were set out to grow in Uvalde.

In June, when harvest of the determinate tomatoes was at its peak, researchers at the university's trial fields invited a group of commercial growers to sample Southern Night and get their feedback on market potential. Unanimously, the growers said the tomato was ugly (not the red and round consumers expected), were not uniform in size, which makes shipping more expensive, and unsalable. Asked about taste, most of the growers wouldn't taste Southern Night slices. They were put off by the brown flesh with lime green gel sacks around the seeds. A few who did taste the heirloom said they loved it. But, the consensus was that consumers wouldn't purchase them.

My venture into trying to share the heirloom taste with the world taught me a valuable lesson. Marketing and peer pressure go a long way into shaping the American palate. We heirloom lovers, who know or recently have learned how wonderful antique varieties are, will have to continue to grow our own, save the seeds and try to preserve superb flavor for future generations. A positive note is that farmers markets are selling more and more luscious heirloom tomato varieties, including many black ones like Southern Night. Hopefully, consumers will be more open to experiencing flavor, not hype.

By Doreen Howard, Freelance Writer


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