By Catherine Darnell
There are times Marianne Jones questions her sanity, particularly days during the late summer, when she’s standing in her kitchen, seeding tomatoes for 12 or 13 hours.
“I start crying. I say it’s too much,” says Dickson County’s “tomato lady.” “Sometimes it takes long days.”
Then, much like in childbirth, the painful memory fades. The next year she’s at it again – mother of Mariseeds.com – nurturing her heirloom tomato business.
When Jones and her husband, Buford, moved from Dallas to 36 acres in Dickson County in 1991, she never could have imagined that she would be growing hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes. That first year in Dickson, she started small with hybrids like Early Girl and Big Boy in an already existing garden.
But then she read an article by an heirloom enthusiast who grew tomatoes in all different colors. Purples, golds, whites and blacks. The colors alone were enough to intrigue Jones, but there were also unusual shapes – long ones that looked like sausages, tiny ones that looked like grapes, even nearly hollow varieties perfect for stuffing. Intrigued, she ordered seed catalogs; the next year she grew 25 heirlooms.
“The first one I tasted was Brandywine,” Jones says. “I thought I’d died and gone to tomato heaven. I’d never tasted anything like it.”
Maybe not before, but she sure has since.
Jones tries 150 new varieties every year, adding to the hundreds and hundreds she’s already tested. It occurred to her along the way that she was growing far too many tomatoes for personal use, so she started selling seeds through seed-savers clubs and her Web site, as well as giving plants to friends and neighbors. As her tomato crop grew, so did the word. Now her customers hail from across the U.S., Canada and even Europe.
When people ask Marianne Jones the difference between heirlooms and the more familiar hybrids, her answer is simple: “It’s mostly flavor.”
Her theory is that when seed companies started hybridizing tomatoes for a longer shelf life and thicker skins, they bred the flavor out of the fruit. She also likes to point out that it is a myth that heirlooms are hard to grow.
“Everybody who grows them knows that’s not true,” she says. “They are incredibly productive and disease-resistant.”
And they are also incredibly varied. Heirloom tomatoes come in all shapes, colors and sizes. On the outside, they are not always perfect: Some varieties, for example, split easily due to thin skins – one reason why one doesn’t see an abundance of them for sale commercially. Others, however, are like miniature works of art when sliced, with surprising veins of color inside.
Consider some of Jones’ favorites: orange (Orange Oxheart, a delicious beefsteak); green (Evergreen, another beefsteak); white (Great White, which can be up to 2 pounds, with pink inside); yellow (Chuck’s Yellow, beefsteak); gold (Gold Oxheart); purple (Cherokee Purple); black (Black Krim); striped (Tigerella, red with gold stripes); bicolor (Big Rainbow, gold with splashes of red); plum (Ernie’s Plump, great for canning); cherry (Rideau Sweet Red, although there are hundreds of varieties in all colors); stuffing (Liberty Bell, a red); and beefsteak (Black Mountain Pink, her personal favorite tomato of the moment).
“It’s almost solid meat,” Jones says of the Black Mountain Pink, “pink with streaks of ruby red and a real creamy flavor.”
Imagine a tomato with a creamy flavor. Some folks can’t.
“Most people still want pink and red beefsteaks,” she said. “I’ll give them a Cherokee Purple or a white one. People come back the next year and want them. They don’t have any idea there is such a thing.”
They do at The Produce Place in Nashville. Owner Barry Burnette says he has been carrying heirloom tomatoes there for five or six years, selling 150-200 quarts a week during season, “Which for our place is a lot. We have heirloom lifetime customers.”
“Taste works for us,” Burnette says. “Our customers like to be stimulated by taste and flavor.”
A taste for tomatoes
Personally, Jones says, she could eat tomatoes three meals a day. She never tires of them – although she does get tired of picking them. She cans about 80 quarts a year, makes all kinds of salsa, freezes them, dries them in a dehydrator.
Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, her children – Cooper, 12, and Hana, 16 – won’t eat tomatoes like she does.
“None of them comes in and eats a tomato sandwich,” Jones says.
Maybe the children have had their fill of tomatoes. After all, they see rows of tomato seedlings under grow lights in their living room from January through March. Seed pulp ferments on their kitchen counter in the summer. There’s the ever-present aroma of boiling tomatoes ready to be canned. And piles of tomatoes fill their home from July until Christmas, when Marianne usually eats the last of the ripened tomatoes she picked green before frost.
Yes, that might have something to do with it.
Some may be thinking by now that Jones seems a wee bit obsessive-compulsive when it comes to tomatoes.
“Yes,” she says with a laugh. “We know that.”
Find the top tomato recipes from the Tennessee Home & Farm staff and the tomato lady herself:
- Marianne’s Party Bruschetta Recipe
- Tomato Pie Recipe
- Creamy Tomato Basil Soup Recipe
- Watermelon Tomato Salad Recipe
- Marinated Tomato Slices Recipe
What’s your favorite kind of tomatoes? Let us know in the comments!
Note: This story originally ran in the Summer 2004 edition of Tennessee Home & Farm.