18 Jul Share week 10: Heirlooms and Paul Robeson
The last few days on the farm have been a challenge. With the temperature soaring, the crew is feeling the heat, but the crops still need to be picked. Just as the garlic harvest is complete, the storage onion harvest begins. The second planting of cucumbers is just about ready for harvest, and we are well into an every other day picking schedule of the summer squash. The field tomatoes are trickling in, and CSA members and market shoppers are enjoying the bounty of the heirloom tomato harvest.
We grow a handful of different heirloom tomato varieties, all with nuances in flavor and appearance. Though we don’t grow tomatoes for their stories, my favorite just happens to have a great one. The Russian heirloom variety Paul Robeson may not be the most productive tomato of all, but its rich chocolate brown color mirrors its deep earthy flavor. I like to talk it up at the farmers market as the “BLT tomato”- but thanks to its smoky undertones you can skip the bacon if you so desire.
And if the color and taste weren’t enough to make this luscious tomato a favorite, it is named for a local hero. Paul Robeson (born in Princeton, 1898 and died in Philadelphia, 1976) was an accomplished athlete at Rutgers University, famous actor (played Othello in the longest-running Shakespearean production in Broadway history), singer (world famous for his vibrant baritone renditions of Negro spirituals), orator, cultural scholar and linguist (fluent in at least 15 languages). If that’s not enough, Robeson was an outspoken crusader for racial equality and social justice, all the while battling overt racism against himself throughout his life and various endevours.
Revered by the left, reviled by the right, Robeson was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and beyond, harassed by the FBI, his passport revoked for eight years, his career stifled. How a tomato developed in the Soviet Union came to be named after him is uncertain, except that perhaps his connection with Communism made it a safe bet for Russian scientists looking for a politically correct name choice. I don’t recall ever having learned about this great man in school, so I have farming, and the story of this delicious tomato, to thank for a new knowledge of Paul Robeson, a man who’s achievements were unparalleled and were all the more incredible given the barriers of racism that he had to surmount.
So that’s your history lesson of the day! Of course, all the heirloom tomatoes we grow have amazing flavor and stories (The Cherokee Purple and Green tomatoes are said to trace back to seeds given to someone in Tenessee by Cherokee Indians in the late 1800’s), and everyone here at the farm has a different favorite- Farmer Tom even prefers the red field tomatoes that you’re about to see in the share. Hopefully you can try a few different tomato varieties and find your own favorite!
Photos and text by Tricia Borneman, Blooming Glen farmer and co-owner.