Ugly Tomatoes Take NY By Storm

August 15, 2008 at 1:33 pm Leave a comment

Here’s an interesting article about how ugly tomatoes are making a killing at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket. Not quite sure I’m up for ugly tomatoes personally however I guess some people with lots of cash or a taste for the exotic really want them.

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Ugly Tomatoes Take Manhattan in Farmer’s Greenmarket Memoir

Review by Carly Berwick
Last Updated: August 7, 2008 00:01 EDT
Bloomberg – USA
http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=aftCENckUtHU&refer=muse

Aug. 7 (Bloomberg) — Ugly, dirt-streaked vegetables are Tim Stark’s specialty. For the past 12 years, he’s been selling his wares at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket, an effort that has made him a minor celebrity among locavore gourmands and a major reason why vegetables at the city’s best restaurants taste so fresh.

“Heirloom,” the memoir of Stark’s transformation from struggling New York professional to small-time, big-name tomato guy, is an instant classic of gentleman-farmer literature — at least, the first half of it is.
Before his commute on what he calls “the tomato highway” from his farm in eastern Pennsylvania to Union Square, Stark was a struggling consultant by day, unpublished writer by night. Then a chance encounter with a dumpster provided the weekend gardener and one-time country boy with the basics of a seed germination rack — two-by-fours, pipes, nails — which he impulsively decided to install in his Brooklyn apartment.
“I could not help noticing how these tomatoes responded to me in ways that women, bosses and literary editors never had,” Stark writes.
Stark took the flourishing seedlings to his family home, a rotting old farm purchased by his country-lawyer father from a desperate client. The heirloom tomatoes Stark grew there were blackened, cracked, mocked roundly by the local farmers and a hit at the Greenmarket, where he sold out every time. Their names alone make great poetry: Green Zebra, Black Krim, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.
Farmer’s Fun
Stark writes inspired family rumination, local history and farm comedy. His father, he says, was “an Eagle Scout buried beneath barrister flab” who left a longstanding marriage for the dream of becoming a river guide. His unwitting childhood agricultural tutor was an embittered Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking farmer turned groundskeeper, who, when asked by Stark’s mother what he did for fun, replied, “Plow.”
Stark’s back-to-the-land effort does well enough that he eventually hires help. Notable losers show up: the felonious father of four who begs for a week’s pay in advance and then skips town, the art student who finds stake pounding uninspiring. But true tomato people reveal themselves after time: hardy, devoted, proudly regressive. They tend to be close relatives, hippies or Purepecha-speaking Mexicans.
Mennonites, Boulud
For a book about plants, “Heirloom” is well populated with outsized characters. Laconic Mennonite farmers wage psychological warfare at a tractor auction. Celebrity chef Daniel Boulud offers Stark a hand-cooked post-delivery meal, while a pastry chef dispatches him on elderflower-finding missions.
But the second half is a disappointment, mostly because the first is so wonderful. The names of top chefs are dropped too often, a tutorial on Greenmarket history feels obligatory and a response to critics of a Gourmet magazine article he wrote about killing a groundhog is indulgent (the properly grumpy farmer would just let the critics stew alone).
Stark would have done well to take a lesson from his tomato- selling strategy and stick to tending the unusual and unknown, leaving the bright lights of New York to more common writers.
“Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer” is published by Broadway (232 pages, $24).
(Carly Berwick is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer of this review: Carly Berwick at cberwick@gmail.com.

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