One of my favorite seed catalogs arrived the other day.
I paged through it as soon as I got back in my car, drooling over the garden porn.
But, most of all, I read it for the articles.
This particular seed catalog specializes in heirloom varieties: old-fashioned varieties, saved and handed down generation to generation. The “articles” are the plant descriptions – mini stories of horticultural history.
One of my favorite tomato tales is that of the Mortgage Lifter variety. The exceptionally large, meaty beefsteak tomato was first developed in the early 1930s by West Virginian Marshall Cletis Byles. Byles, though not particularly educated, bred a tomato he could sell in nurseries and that could feed the struggling families in the Great Depression.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that Byles was satisfied with his efforts, and sold the plants for $1 each – about $18 by today’s standards. Despite the hefty price tag, gardeners and farmers from hundreds of miles away made the journey to West Virginia to get Byles’ seedlings. In six years, Byles was able to pay of a $6,000 mortgage, hence the name “Mortgage Lifter.”
I have a soft-but-not-rotten spot for Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, as they were my first experience with an heirloom variety. I was working at the library, and my uncle came in with a huge tomato; Mortgage Lifters can weigh anywhere from 2 to 4 pounds, and I believe it. It was beautiful, but I was not a raw tomato fan.
Mortgage Lifters ended up changing my life. The flavor was full, and the texture rich. It was definitely not like a tomato slapped on a burger at a fast food restaurant. It was even better than garden-grown hybrid varieties. Turns out, tomatoes – along with many other fruits and vegetables – are like fine wine, with nuances and tones worthy of rolling around in your mouth and histories worthy of rolling off the tongue. I was intrigued with the heirloom concept, did some research and never looked at produce the same again.