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When I was a kid, my parents had a small summer cottage on the Greenbrier River in West Virginia. My father had an old friend who owned a small farm on a "bottom" along the banks of the Greenbrier, not too far from our cottage. "Bottom" is another term for floodplain and like most floodplains, the soil is extremely fertile. We would often visit the family during the summer and I got the chance to play around by the river, the pond and in the garden.
It was here that I was first introduced to heirloom vegetables. I didn't know it at the time, but many of the vegetables we ate from his garden, were seeds saved from year to year and from farmer to farmer.
Fred and his wife lived year round on the river and their farm was mostly used to graze cattle but he did grow a garden for personal use. They had several children who had grown up and moved on but judging by the size of his garden, you would have thought he was feeding an army.
What I remember most was the biggest tomato I had ever seen. Fred chewed Red Man tobacco and he would always have a little bit of tobacco juice in the corner of his mouth. He never stopped telling stories and so the spit would just accumulate until he could pause to spit. A little brown stain always remained.
"I want you to go find the biggest mater in that patch" he said to me.
Fred was an early version of Ric Flair (a "pro" wrestler) but much more colorful. He spoke like a jet engine busting through the sound barrier and as jovial as Saint Nick- with a shot or two of bourbon. He laughed hard and loud and the stories were never ending.
As a kid, I didn't understand much of what he said, but he kept me mesmerized. I went into the tomato patch and carefully selected what I thought to be the biggest tomato in the garden. Now garden is a loose term here, the tomato patch was about 100 feet long by 10 rows thick. He had so many plants (and weeds) it was hard to find the biggest. After much deliberation, I finally brought him back what I thought was the biggest.
Being only six or seven, I remember the tomato being so big, I had to carry it with both hands. It was very ripe and had a soft, yet firm texture. I turned the corner where Fred and my father stood and was stunned.
"WWWHHHHOOooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee" he bellowed "now thats a mater." He was right, I had never seen a tomato as large as the one in both of my hands.
He took it from me and produced , out of his pocket a salt shaker. He took a bite then sprinkled some salt on the "mater".
Fred was a gigantic man, especially to me, but when he took a bite from the mater, most of his face was hidden. His face was covered in tomoato juice, with just a hint of Red Man in the corners. His smile was contagious.
"Whooooooooooooooooooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, that's good. Come on boy, take a bite." He prepped the next bite with a dash of salt and shove the "mater" back into my hands. Seeing Fred chew tobacco all day (and how often did he spit it out anyway?) I was very reluctant to take the tomato and take a bite. Not a big fan of tobacco at that time but he pressed on.
"Son, let me tell you what" he said in a Ric Flair tone, "Woooooeeee you wont find any better tastin' mater than right here."
My family had a small garden and I did like tomatoes, especially the little cherry tomatoes, called tommy-toes by my family. We still bought many of veggies from the store. I remember however, that was the juiciest tomato I have ever bitten into and the flavor just blasted out into my mouth.
Little did I know that the tomato was what you will find here called a Mortgage Lifter and that Fred had swapped seeds with a fellow from Welch, WV who had been growing it for years. Every year, he would grow the tomato and save several hundred seeds and swap them with other folks who did the same.
I learned this from second, third and fourth hand accounts plus a little deductive reasoning and come to the conclusion that my first heirloom tomato was a Mortgage Lifter from Radiator Charlie. If you have not heard of the famous mortgage lifter, please read this account.
Fred grew other tomoatos, even the little ones that I really like. He introduced me to the Yellow Pear, which dates back into the 17th or 18th century, which is a very small pear shaped yellow "mater". It is very sweet with just a hint of a zing.
I remember thinking at some point on one of those summer days why grocery store tomatoes didn't taste as good and when I asked Fred why, I got an answer that made me wanna throw up for a second.
"Cow manure" he bellowed. "Wooooooooheeeeeeeeee cow manure makes everything good son."
Took a while, but I'll agree with him now. As a matter of fact, our heirlooms are grown in manure, but a different type- worm manure. We use worms to eat catering waste and turn it into one of the best soils you can grow in. Worm castings have been shown to increase the rate of germination, the health of the plant and if it continues to be present in the soil, will help with the over all retention of nutrients in the soil.
The was the best tasting "mater" and you will find that our heirlooms will produce some of the best tasting vegetables you have ever tasted. Give them a try.