Heirloom Tomatoes Celebrated at Chicago Festival

Chicago Botanic Garden devotes one summer weekend each year to celebrate incredible heirloom tomatoes.

Tomatoes and Marigolds

Marigolds at the base of tomato trellises act as both insect deterrents and living mulch.

Photo By Natalie K. Gould

Content Tools

When John Swenson planted Antique Roman and Banana Legs tomato varieties in his garden in the 1990s, in no way could he have predicted they would cross pollinate. Up until this point, Swenson enjoyed Antique Roman but said it was polymorphic — irregular shapes and sizes — and had a thin skin, therefore transported poorly. Nonetheless, he was intrigued by the variety’s history, so he kept it in his garden and introduced it in the 1991 Seed Savers Exchange yearbook. Then one summer day in 1995, he stepped out into his garden, and to his surprise he found a tomato he had never seen before. Swenson had planted what he thought were Antique Roman seeds, but the red fruit with golden stripes and spots was no Antique Roman tomato. He examined it, pronounced it a Roma, and set to work investigating where exactly it came from. What he eventually discovered was that his Banana Legs had formed a stable cross with the unpredictable Antique Roman, creating what is now known as the Speckled Roman. This heirloom was just one of many celebrated varieties at the fourth annual Heirloom Tomato Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.

The festival brings together gardeners and non-gardeners alike for a weekend spent celebrating tomatoes on a 3.8-acre island filled with more than 700 edible plants.

For many folks, tomatoes are identical red, waxy spheres found in the grocery store’s produce section. Their flavor is bland, and children turn up their noses at the sight of the offending fruit. Heirloom Tomato Weekend aims to “inspire people to grow and celebrate heirloom tomatoes,” Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg says. A portion of the visitors aren’t even aware that varying types of tomatoes exist, not to mention varieties with a scale of flavors ranging from sugary sweet to peppery.

“What makes a tomato an heirloom?” one visitor asks on a walking tour of the garden. Hilgenberg replies that an heirloom is simply any plant variety with a history of being passed down within a family or community, and because all heirlooms are open-pollinating, they produce the same fruit year after year. Unlike hybrids, seeds saved from heirloom varieties breed true. This information provides a perfect segue for Hilgenberg to lead the group to her seed-saving demonstration.

What looks like a 10th-grade science experiment with shallow bowls and glass measuring cups is actually a simple setup to show folks two easy methods to save their heirloom tomato seeds. There is no need to buy heirloom seeds year after year so long as the existing seeds are saved properly — and the process couldn’t be easier.

Method 1: Slice the best heirloom tomatoes at their “equator,” or where most of the seeds are located. Squeeze the pulp into jars, and let it sit out uncovered for a few days to ferment. This process helps remove the slippery membrane surrounding the seeds. When a thin layer of mold covers the pulp, usually within two to three days, pour the contents into a strainer over the sink and rinse. With a table knife, spread the seeds on a plate covered with a coffee filter or paper towels to dry completely. Don’t forget to label the towel or filter with the tomato variety. Fold up the paper towel or coffee filter and place it in an envelope, or flick the seeds off and store in small envelopes. Store in a cool, dry place indoors. Seeds are viable for four to five years.

Method 2: Slice the best heirloom tomatoes at their equator. Squeeze the pulp into a strainer over the sink. Run cold water over the pulp and work the membrane off with your fingers. Knock the strainer over a plate covered with a coffee filter or paper towels to remove the seeds. With a table knife, spread the seeds on the filter or paper towels to dry completely. Don’t forget to label the towel or filter with the tomato variety. Fold up the paper towel or coffee filter and place it in an envelope, or flick the seeds off and store in small envelopes. Store in a cool, dry place indoors. Seeds are viable for four to five years.

Fifteen minutes later, seed-saving students head off to a another demonstration, and this one’s delicious. Chef Laura Piper, a veteran of storied kitchens such as Gibson’s and Hugo’s Frog Bar and Fish House, brings a taste of Chicago favorite Trattoria No. 10 to the festival. Her mission is to present a dish that not only maximizes the depth of flavor from heirloom tomatoes, but also is approachable for the average home cook.

Chef Piper chooses Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi, or what she describes as pasta-less ravioli. The chef sautés onions and dices tomatoes, and the audience admires the dish’s simplicity and aroma. Onlookers candidly ask questions while Piper dishes up samples of her demonstration.

Section by section the small amphitheater goes quiet as guests savor the delicate flavors presented to them. Heirloom tomatoes take center stage in this dish, and that is exactly how Piper envisioned it when she wrote the recipe days before. The recipe is reflective of her restaurant in that it is perfectly in season, using ingredients readily accessible from the garden or local farms. See the full Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi Recipe.

Satisfied palates next move to vendor tables to further educate themselves on heirloom tomato varieties. Swenson himself sits proudly next to a Speckled Roman plant and a plate full of the gorgeous fruit. A number of admirers stop to chat, tell him about their own growing experience, and ask for advice. He enthusiastically answers questions, and when passersby are astonished by the speckled tomato, he adds, “Tomatoes don’t have to be boring!”

Swenson is one of about a thousand volunteers at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and his mission is to educate the community on all things botanic. His expertise is put to good use at this festival. The question he gets most is, “How often should I water tomatoes?” His response is simple: “When they need it. Not every day.”

Among the 31 open-pollinated tomato varieties on the island, there are a number serving as “An All-American Salute to Seed Saving.” The vegetable and flower varieties in the American Seed Saver bed were grown at the White House or by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, enlightening visitors to the long and storied history of seed saving in the United States and the importance of preserving heirloom varieties.

“Because of the work of home gardeners and seed-saving organizations, an increasing number of heirloom varieties are now available to the public,” Hilgenberg says. The Abraham Lincoln tomato pays tribute to the nation’s 16th president, who established the United States Department of Agriculture more than 150 years ago. “What could be more American than that?” Hilgenberg says.

The Heirloom Tomato Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a poignant reminder of the role tomatoes have played in the United States’ history as well as our individual lives. When a visitor bites into a juicy heirloom tomato, a common reaction is “Wow, this tastes just like the tomatoes from my childhood on my grandparents’ farm,” and that is exactly what the festival aims to accomplish: awareness, education and passion about the tastiest tomatoes on earth.