Heirloom: Notes From a Tomato Farmer

Tim Stark’s heirloom tomatoes are famous at the Union Square Greenmarket and a perennial fixture on the menus of many celebrated restaurants. But his farm has roots in Brooklyn, as he explains in this excerpt from his new memoir.

An unsustainable writer’s life—hunkered down at a desk on the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone—proved to be the soil in which the farmer within me took root. Out on Flatbush Avenue one wintry March evening, pacing and frothing over poverty, injustice and those politely worded rejection letters quarterlies dispense the way banks hand out toasters, I came upon a trash dumpster loaded with basement scraps: water pipes, furring strips, two by fours studded with nails. From these scraps, I saw in a flash of insight, I could construct a seed germination rack. In the gardening catalogs, a deluxe seed-starting kit, complete with full spectrum light, shelving and soil heating mats, costs about $800. Which I didn’t have.

What I did possess—or so I fancied—was a farmer’s resourcefulness. Four years earlier, I’d started a vegetable garden on land I’d grown up on in Pennsylvania. Road trips to my garden in a battered Toyota pickup kept my landlord and me seasonally flush in tomatoes and pesto. I had never given serious thought, until this moment, to expanding. It was an idea so impractical it bordered on fiction. Most everything I planted—peas, lettuce, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, beets—got chewed down to nubs by deer and groundhogs. Whether these fur-bearing gourmands were susceptible to primitive superstitions about nightshades, I don’t know, but come August, you’d look at my garden and think the only thing I planted was tomatoes. The vines strafed the basil and thyme, shaded the sun-loving peppers and strangled the zucchini that, only weeks earlier, armed with baseball bat-sized fruit, had conquered the same ground.

As for the tomatoes plumping up on those vines, some looked more like peaches, pears, lemons and Cinderella pumpkins. There were purple, white, pink and green orbs whose rich, acidic juices colonized the canker sores that throbbed in my mouth until my addiction petered out each September. This jungle of sumptuous, mismatched love apples had its origins in winter days spent poring over the annual yearbook of the Seed Saver’s Exchange, a phone book-like compilation of heirloom seeds offered for a small fee by the gardeners, master and amateur, without whom the tomato would be red for eternity. Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Garden Peach, Plum Lemon, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter. I could not help noticing how these tomatoes responded to me in ways that women, bosses and literary editors never had.

It took five trips to drag my lumber and water pipes up three flights to my apartment. I bought cheap shop lights and hung them from the water pipes an inch above seeded trays. A week later, my writer’s garret was home to 3,000 fledgling tomatoes, tightly organized in labeled rows, stretching toward fluorescent bliss.

Alas, you can’t file away 3,000 tomato seedlings like another so-so draft. I had always replenished my writer’s war chest with freelance consulting gigs, so, to support my tomatoes, I took on a consulting job that required frequent trips to Albany. When the seedlings outgrew the four trays in which they were crowded together, I spent a weekend potting them up into individual plugs, which meant now I had to accommodate 40 plug trays. I bought more lights—enough to satisfy the photosynthetic needs of half my seedlings—and put the tomatoes on two 12-hour shifts. Since a sliver of light will keep a seedling awake until it keels over of insomnia, I went out to the street and hauled home four refrigerator-size boxes so the slumbering trays could be placed in pitch darkness.

I was keeping farmer’s hours now, especially when I had to catch the 6 a.m. train to Albany. Up at 4:30 to put my tomato seedlings through the Chinese fire drill, transferring the sleepers from the boxes to the fluorescent lights, bedding down the ones that had been up all night, watering and inspecting, readjusting my circulation fans and checking the chile peppers germinating on heat mats. Another Chinese fire drill when I got home in the evening. My bedroom was a humid microcosm, bugs helicoptering, the damp smell of tomato musk everywhere.

City life agreed with my tomatoes. Unharried by the elements, their first brush with adversity came on an April day when I carried them up to the roof. The real sun was no 40-watt bulb. The seedlings nearly wilted to death. For two weeks, I spent every free moment weaning them from the fluorescent lights, hauling them onto the roof, then back down when the wilting started. Adaptation to the sun brought with it a burst of growth: my seedlings needed larger containers. The rooftop was big enough to hold 90 trays but I needed to construct cold frames to protect the seedlings from the April weather. My landlord intervened when I found a dumpster full of windows for cold frames. This is a landlord who, during lean months, had kindly accepted tomatoes and zucchini in lieu of rent. Concerned, and for good reason, that the windows of my cold frames would take flight in the wind, he evicted my tomatoes.

Two trips in my Toyota pickup brought all the seedlings to my boyhood home in Pennsylvania, where I laid claim to a couple acres of shaly ground and tracked down an old high school classmate who managed to start up the Ford 8N tractor that had sat unused for 15 years. The only labor I could afford was pro bono, so I convinced all my friends who were doctors and lawyers that it would be fun to come out to the country for a weekend and help transplant two acres of seedlings with garden trowels. From there, my first season as a farmer unfolded as if the inverse of Murphy’s Law was at work. Although I had no irrigation, the clouds delivered almost every week. When buyers at the local produce auction refused to bid on my gangly, multicolored misfits, the Union Square Greenmarket offered me space. And so, back to that beautiful mosaic of a city they went, these upstarts with the quirky immigrant names: Black Krim, Extra Eros Zlatolaska, German Johnson, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Zapotec Pleated, Rose de Berne.

The rest of that first season is a frenetic blur of pulling weeds and picking tomatoes and begging people—my parents, friends, neighbors, anyone—to help me pick tomatoes.

And hawking tomatoes. Pulling into Union Square in the morning, late from having picked until dark, I would brace myself for the relentless questions. Because I was practically subsisting on the tomatoes myself—there was no time for a sit-down meal—the descriptions came literally off the tip of my tongue: Yellow Brandywine’s nectarine-rich sweetness, Cherokee Purple’s winy acidity, Green Zebra’s salty tang, White Wonder’s appeasing mildness. Trusting more to their own instincts, the chefs grabbed empty tomato boxes, climbed aboard the truck and rummaged away in an urban version of pick-your-own. When I was splitting at the seams with abundance—the overloaded Toyota blew a clutch and I rented a box truck, which the tomatoes ably filled—Charles Kiely and Sharon Pachter, who today run the Grocery restaurant on Smith Street, spread the word. The truck buzzed with chefs. I sold out every time.

As the season wore on, though, I began to feel toward this lucky crop the way a father might feel toward an onerous brood of children, wearily anticipating the day the last spoiled brat gets hauled off to college. I remember the Friday evening my girlfriend and I came into the city to deliver tomatoes. We were muddy and worn out from picking and hadn’t eaten since breakfast. There were the added aggravations you’d expect on the most humid evening of summer: A grocer who groused about how “tomatoes are in the dog house.” Two parking tickets. A maître d’ who blocked my passage when I tried to sneak a delivery through the dining room during service. Restaurants had yet to discover how a reputation for seasonal purity might be clinched by a filthy farmer waltzing 50 pounds of just-picked tomatoes between crowded tables and into the kitchen.

On the way uptown with the final delivery, we got snagged in gridlocked traffic and I felt a tremendous urge to pull a Jackson Pollock with my remaining tomatoes, to yank the stems out like hand grenade pins and pulp the white van wedged in front of me.

“To the dog house with all of them,” I announced. “I will never grow tomatoes again!”

When we finally made it to the last drop off, at Restaurant Daniel, Alex Lee, the chef de cuisine, helped us carry the tomatoes into the kitchen. When Alex introduced us to Daniel Boulud, the chef looked us over and promptly said, “let me give you something to eat.”

“A quick bite sounds great,” I said, thinking of all the tomatoes waiting to be picked at the crack of dawn.

“Here, there is no such thing as a quick bite to eat,” Daniel explained as a table was set in the kitchen for us. We must have been the most bedraggled, homeless-looking specimens on the Upper East Side. I sat down and rose again, thinking this time of my truck parked at an expiring meter. “Don’t worry,” Alex said, heading outside with quarters.

Back in Brooklyn, when I wanted someone else’s cooking, it was invariably to Tom’s or Two Toms that I went. Tom’s was a block from where I lived, on Washington Place, a jamming breakfast joint where Gus always greeted you at the door, and your omelet or your walnut pancakes were washed down by one of those effervescences for which the borough is famous: an egg cream, a lime rickey. At Two Toms on Third Avenue, every table but yours would be committed to some lively softball league banquet and you either selected one of the mile-wide pork chops being served to the joke-cracking banqueteers or you accepted whatever calamari Mom was cooking up in the back kitchen. A good choice either way.

But Restaurant Daniel was like nothing I had eaten in my life. My farmer’s appetite rendered me callous to the task of remembering the seven courses and the wines. I mopped up every drop of every sauce until every plate reflected my week’s growth of whiskers.

I do remember a clear, lemon-tinted soup made from the freshly squeezed juices of taxi tomatoes. At the bottom of the bowl, a tiny wild Mexican tomato glimmered like a fathomless ruby.

Hey! Those were my tomatoes!

Never again? I say that every October. And every March, I drag out the dumpster-inspired germination rack that moved to Pennsylvania with me. For 10 years, now, I’ve made a living from tomatoes. It’s not a bad life. I still don’t own a farm, but I have my own tractor.

And that landlord who gave my tomatoes the boot? He works for me.

Copyright © 2008 by Tim Stark. From the book Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

It took five trips to drag the lumber and pipes up the three flights to my apartment. A week later, my walk-up was home to 3,000 fledgling tomatoes, tightly organized in labeled rows, stretching toward fluorescent bliss.