"Heirloom" has become another buzzword, like "farm to table," complains Jeremy Fox, the chef at vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu in Napa, Calif., which serves farm-to-table heirlooms as well as hybrids invented by the restaurant's full-time gardener. "It's about quality," he says. "If a tomato tastes good, it's a good tomato. Nothing else matters."
That wasn't always the case. Once, only serious backyard gardeners swooned over heirlooms. Some, undoubtedly, were concerned about flavor. But for most, growing heirlooms — which they defined as any variety that can reproduce from seed and existed before World War II — was more about preserving biodiversity.
Only within the past decade did chefs and trend-crazed food writers latch on to the term: NewsBank, a database that tracks more than 2,500 sources, found 1,097 references to heirloom tomatoes in 2008, up from 77 a decade earlier.
Over the years, writers have praised the looks of heirloom tomatoes: the psychedelic colors and shapes. They applauded their flavor: the fruity explosion of the Casady's Folly and the candy sweetness and lemon notes of that Mullens' Mortgage Lifter.
Soon, heirlooms had been transformed into a status symbol, and not just for foodies. In 2005, a New York Times style writer described a pair of $635 jeans as "the apparel form of heirloom tomatoes, good the way things used to be, but at 10 times the price."
Indeed, heirloom tomatoes rose to such prominence that sociologists began to study them as a cultural phenomenon. In a 2007 article in the journal Sociologia Ruralis, Jennifer Jordan examined the pressing question of why a growing number of consumers had acquired a taste for $7-a-pound "bug-eaten, calloused, mottled and splitting tomatoes that may or may not taste good."