Tommy-toes: Recalling an Era When Heirloom Tomatoes Were Just Tomatoes

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The locally sourced salad that accompanied most of the entrées boasted “heirloom” tomatoes, the waitress said. They were, she added, “exquisite, better than any that you have ever tasted.”

Several friends and I were at one of Knoxville’s popular new eateries.

The waitress, being young enough so that she still knew everything, assumed that I didn’t know what an “heirloom” vegetable was. But I’ve consumed a couple of bushels of tomatoes that might be termed “exquisite in taste,” the most memorable being from my late grandfather’s garden.

In the early decades of the last century, Wohlwend Brothers’ Farm, involving my grandfather and two of his siblings, specialized in produce. And they knew what they were doing.

My dad, primary delivery boy for the operation in his youth, had a route from the Holston River farm to downtown. He would drive a mule-drawn wagon along Ruggles Ferry Pike to downtown, stopping at groceries along the way. Whatever was left would be sold on Market Square.

But I decided to humor the waitress and told her that I would try her recommendation. My exquisite salad arrived with small, red, pear-shaped tomatoes, the variety that I grew up calling tommy-toes.

By the time I came along my grandfather was retired, but he still maintained a large garden. And he specialized in what he and my grandmother favored: several varieties of tomatoes; a half-dozen or so types of watermelons, including the especially sweet, dark green “midgets”; strawberries; cantaloupes; okra; Silver Queen corn; rhubarb; cucumbers.

And peanuts—I was sick more than once from eating them raw on the way home, unable to wait until they had been roasted in the oven.

I would often be recruited to shuck the corn, which meant an extra half-hour picking cornsilk strands off my clothes. If my sister was present, I would terrorize her with the worms that inevitably would be uncovered during the shucking.

My mother, expert at cake-baking, never quite mastered pie crust, so she would sometimes pass strawberries and rhubarb to a neighbor who would then bring us a pie filled with that sweet-tart combination. My mother would then reciprocate with a strawberry cake.

If we picked the rhubarb ourselves, Grandpa would warn us not to eat the leaves as they were poison. “I don’t want any dead grandchildren around the kitchen table,” he would joke.

If there was rhubarb aplenty, the vegetable would be stewed with sugar for a simple dessert. I naturally assumed the dish graced neighborhood tables as well. Later, I discovered that most of the kids I hung out with had never heard of rhubarb.

The same was true at the time of another favorite—okra. Years later, when I was living in Louisville, I was having lunch with a co-worker, an Ohio native, when he took a look at the bowl of gumbo I had ordered and noticed what to him was a mysterious green ring floating on top.

“What the hell is that?” he asked. “Okra,” I said.

“Never heard of it,” he said. I offered him a taste, but he turned up his nose. “It’s used in soup because it’s slimy,” I explained.

“Good reason not to eat it,” he answered.

After I had moved to Atlanta, where okra is known and understood, my Ohio friend provided the impetus for a food column that I was writing: I pointed out that the green pod is the only vegetable that contains the minimum daily requirement of both fuzz and slime.

My mother’s favored okra preparation was fried in a cast-iron skillet. But she had developed a variation in the breading recipe, substituting corn meal for flour. The result was that the breading came apart and the skillet bottom was covered with a lot of crispy bits of corn meal. And that was the best part.

In restaurants, I generally avoid the fried okra—it just doesn’t measure up.

But the heirloom tomatoes on my salad, if not quite “exquisite,” were excellent, tasting of sunshine, like a tomato should.

When the waitress asked how I liked them, I told her that they were spectacular. One of my companions then told her that we were ancient enough to be heirlooms ourselves, and that was reason enough for us to return for more “exquisiteness.”

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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