‘Tis the season to eat Tennessee tomatoes
This is a love story.
A sweet, juicy romance between a girl and a tomato.
Not just one tomato, but a mess of them. Tomatoes tossed into panzanella. Tomatoes juiced into gazpacho. Tomatoes baked into pie. Tomatoes sliced, salted and savored.
I’ve loved each and every one of them. But never so much as those grown on Tims Family Farm in Ripley, Tennessee.
Robert Tims’ mama and daddy started farming here in 1969. Robert came along two years later. Today, he, his wife Karen, their two daughters and a team of helpers keep things going.
I started buying Tims tomatoes at the Memphis Botanic Garden Farmers Market (you can find them at the Agricenter and Memphis Farmers Market, too). Looking back, it was the palette of the crop that drew me in – the rosy Bradleys; the green-giving-way-to-mauve of the Cherokee Purples; the flaming Carolina Golds; the dappled-lime Green Zebras – the beauties just sat there, all plump-like, as if posing for a color study.
In a way, they were: I selected a rainbow and arranged them in a summer salad so pretty, it could have been a still life…‘til we deconstructed it with forks.
And so, I return to the market each week to gather up the objects of my affection. Until last week, when Robert and Karen invited me to their farm. (Imagine you’re a blues enthusiast who’s been invited to B.B. King’s house. This was me.)
I drove a little more than an hour east of Memphis, past kudzu and tractor lots and the occasional piece of discarded farming equipment to reach Ripley. At the farm, I sat with Robert and Karen in the shade of their roadside stand, chatting to the hum of the sizer. Robert talked me through the evolution of his family’s farm, and the business of farming, recounting hard years and hard decisions: a hail storm that decimated a crop; soaring fuel costs; an industry that encourages farmers to plant seeds resistant to a laundry list of woes. “Every resistant you add kills the flavor. I had the choice to be a big farmer with not-as-good-tasting tomatoes, or a smaller farmer with good quality,” he told me. And so he began experimenting with heirlooms in 2009. “The weather is always against you with an heirloom,” he explained, as is the fragility of these varieties. Pointing to a bruise left by a gentle thumbprint on a Cherokee Purple, Karen demonstrated how the variety suffers 60% loss from the farm to the market. That’s a risk many farmers don’t want to assume. Still, the Tims knew what kind of farmers they wanted to be. They now grow 12 acres and supply the farmers’ markets, their own farm stand and Whole Foods. Robert’s favorites? Chocolate cherries (a dark-skinned cherry tomato) and Green Zebras (of which he says, “It tricks you…it doesn’t have that green taste to it.” Super-chef Alice Waters apparently agrees – she helped popularize the variety at her Berkeley, California Chez Panisse.).
Of course, if you follow my blog the way I puppy-dog after heirlooms, you’ll know you needn’t leave Tennessee to find tomatoes starring on menus. In Memphis, try McEwen’s, The Elegant Farmer and Restaurant Iris, where Chef Kelly English may love the crop as much as I do.
In the meantime, pick up some tomatoes at a farmers’ market or roadside stand. The Pick Tennessee Products website can help you locate a farmer near you. Aside from Tims, some of my other west Tennessee favorites are:
Fletcher Farm in Burlison (call ahead to 901-476-9257 and Donna or Farris will help you arrange to pick your own Bella Rosa and Sweetheart varieties)
Donaldson Produce Farm in Brighton, where three generations are still at it (including grandma, who staffs the farm stand)
Harris Farms at 7521 Sledge Road in Millington. Alvin Harris’ farm stand is open Tues.-Fri. 7 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sat. 7 a.m.-1 p.m. The day I met him, he was stocked with striated cuties known as Strawberry tomatoes and Cherokee Purples, and had this to say about his heirlooms: “They have a lot more taste because they’re chemical-free and natural, the way they have been for centuries.” (Cherokee Purple seeds are said to have been passed to a Sevierville, Tennessee family by their Cherokee neighbors a century ago.) If nothing I’ve said here has sold you on heirlooms, I hope Mr. Harris just did.
Lauderdale County Tomato Festival held annually each July in Ripley. Since 1984, this event has celebrated the Tennessee tomato capital and its bounty.
One last thing – please take care of my babies! Follow these tips from Robert and Karen Tims for selecting and showing some love to your tomatoes:
1. When selecting tomatoes, choose those that feel heavy for their size. This ensures that all of the ripening (and development of sugars) has taken place.
2. Don’t refrigerate tomatoes (chemically, it robs them of their flavor). If you must refrigerate a tomato, let it come to room temperature before enjoying it.
Do you have a favorite roadside stand, you-pick spot or farmer in Tennessee? (Or a tomato recipe you want to share?) Let me hear it!