Hey tomato lovers, when is Louisiana just like New Jersey?
Heard that one before?
Well, when it comes to the enthusiasm for and an emotional attachment to summers gone by; the robust taste of our favorite garden vegetable connects these two diverse regions. How many times have I been asked, “Do you know of any tomatoes that are as good as an old-fashioned Jersey tomato?” There is definitely a bayou version of that same question, though with a decidedly different accent.
I’m in Louisiana visiting family and friends, and once again in search of the Creole tomato. Given it’s July and tomato seasons are early here who knows what I’ll find.
I first remember hearing the term several years ago when in New Orleans’ Jackson Square Farmer’s Market. Of course, TomatoManiac that I am, I quizzed the various vendors (who all seemed to have the key – and the seed — to this southern delicacy) about what makes this tomato special. “Is it a hybrid?” It’s beautiful red skin and lack of blemish suggested that. “Is it an heirloom?” Some were more round, some lobed, some more flattened. That’s an heirloom footprint. “Is it a named variety?” And then of course I asked various growers where I could get some seed. Their smiles were generous, their answers were…not answers at all.
Well, I found “Creole” Tomato seeds. The named variety. I grew them out. Not even close. More pink really, not so red. Medium sized. And round, not a lobe in sight. Good taste, but certainly not the stuff of legend.
What passes as a Creole tomato in New Orleans is not at all what I grew on a couple plants in my California garden. Yes, I should have tried again, or asked other gardeners to back me up with plants of their own but this exhaustive research got me on the right track. I asked more questions.
What I found was something right out of Marketing 101. The Creole tomatoes of New Orleans are not truly a variety at all but a concept that makes great packaging for gorgeous tasty tomatoes that I suspect are Big Boys (or something similar) in a unique box designed to cue the taste buds of eager ‘maniacs like myself.
Just like all copies are Xeroxes and (in Louisiana) any soft drink, despite it’s label, taste or color is a “Coke”, those tasty morsels, if sold in New Orleans and environs, are absolutely “Creole Tomatoes”, more by virtue of their locale than their lineage.
Ok, we know to expect great taste from an heirloom, but what if it IS a hybrid? Let’s go there. Aren’t hybrids tasteless and tough skinned? We’ve talked about that here and we know all too well the cardboard tomato taste that “hybrid” often conjures up. But grown well and picked when absolutely ripe most hybrid tomatoes will offer brilliant taste and enjoyment. (My grandfather grew nothing but Better Boys and I can tell you those were outstanding “Creole” tomatoes) And sometimes hybrid disease resistance and sturdiness will carry you through seasons that would shrivel some of the heirlooms. That’s the way it is.
This season, for example. We’re growing some hybrids we’ve not heard of before and some that we’ve come to love year in and year out.
Jenny, for example, an orange cherry we tried for the first time this year and mentioned often in these writings, is early, beautiful and amazingly prolific. Golden Mama, a relatively new introduction, is a short, very healthy plant that’s LOADED with fruit. I picked twenty five of these roma-esque beauties this week and counted over sixty green fruits on the plant. Champion is once again proving to be just that. Sweet Tangerine is a little-known winner. Orange, medium to large and delicious. And one I’m awaiting anxiously (why won’t it RIPEN!) is Country Taste, a new arrival that intrigued us last fall as we ordered seed. Our trial garden is full of hybrids that will challenge the heirlooms all season long.
Now, none of those qualifies as a Creole Tomato since the zip code is not right but we’ll enjoy them anyway, all the while wondering what it is about New Jersey and Louisiana tomatoes that inspires such devotion.
I’ve still got some of that Creole tomato seed. Maybe I’ll give it one more try.