William Woys Weaver Talks Tomatoes
Willaim Woys Weaver Weighs in on one of his favorite varieties
© Baker Creek Seed Co.
Post By William Woys Weaver
It’s not summer yet and I am already in the mood for yellow tomatoes. I can’t believe that it was 20 years ago when I acquired seed for Hartman’s Yellow Gooseberry – how time flies! Never once have I regretted that choice. John Hartman was a small-scale seed breeder in Indianapolis whose choice creations quickly found their way into Seed Savers Exchange and its far-flung membership. Technically speaking, Hartman’s Yellow Gooseberry (which is featured in color in the Baker Creek catalog), is a reintroduction or further improvement of an old-fashioned heirloom mentioned many times in nineteenth century garden literature. In fact, you will find the tomato illustrated in the 1868 edition of the Album Vilmorin, a huge color folio collection of vegetables offered for sale by the Paris seed company of Vilmorin (still in business by the way). The thing I like about Hartman’s selection is sweet flavor and the long vines, which are ideal for trellising in greenhouses – thus a great favorite of market gardeners who sell a lot of greenhouse produce. The plants produce prolific quantities of fruit, so for a little effort the payback is huge. Best of all, I get really nostalgic when I start eating them, and by that I mean nostalgic for all the yellow tomato recipes my grandmother used to make during the heyday of her cooking years (right up until age 97!).
Her mother used to make “parlor jams,” fancy jams and preserves only served when company came. When that happened (I am referring to the era circa 1905-1910), all the drop cloths came off the parlor furniture, tables got a quick dusting, flower arrangements flew into their assigned corners of the room, and a large silver tray appeared covered with small cut glass bowls of jams and jellies to be served with tea, pound cake, and home-made butter. My grandmother hated the yellow tomato jam. It wasn’t the flavor of ginger or the color. It had more to do with the fact that she was required to put on a dress and sit up straight in a creaky parlor chair, her feet politely crossed, both hands clasped in her lap, and then listen to the endless small talk of adults who barely noticed she was in the room. My grandmother would rather have been climbing trees or chasing after pigs down by the pond, and even though her mother sent her to Miss Jenny Darlington’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, all the good intentions of Miss Jenny went for naught. This only goes to show how two people can have two totally different food memories about the same thing, because I think the evocative image of my great-grandmother’s farmhouse parlor is perfectly charming. Every time I think about it, I can almost taste that yellow tomato jam.
One day, while my grandmother and I were looking through her mother’s 1880s manuscript cookbook, we came across the infamous recipe for yellow tomato jam. This unleashed my grandmother’s narrative about the parlor small talk and how much she disliked being indoors for high tea. It was high tea indeed because her mother had attended Mrs. Rorer’s cooking school in Philadelphia and learned all the minute details of Victorian niceties. Whether or not you choose to serve it in cut-glass bowls, I think its time to share this heirloom jam with you. If you are intending to plant Hartman’s Yellow Gooseberry this year, you will be growing a yellow tomato very similar to the one my great-grandmother Esther Hannum Hickman grew on her farm in Pocopson, Pennsylvania. Now, let’s polish some silver….
Esther’s Yellow Tomato Jam
Yield: 6-7 cups
3 ½ cups fruit, after cooking
1 ½ teaspoon grated zest of lemon
¼ cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 package Sure-Jell (see note)
4 ½ cups sugar
Peel and chop 2 ½ pounds yellow tomatoes. Put them in a saucepan and bring to a boil over a medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes. Measure out 3 ½ cups and put into a clean preserve pan. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, ginger, and Sure-Jell. Bring to a rolling boil. Add the sugar. Bring to a rolling boil and boil 1 minute, then remove from the heat and pour into hot, sterilized jars, and seal. Allow 1 week for the jam to set. Note: Esther Hickman used a quince-based pectin to make her jams and jellies, and long slow cooking (up to 20 minutes). I am using a shortcut method here with Sure-Jell.