March 12, 2013

July 26, 2008 Book Review: Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer

Filed under: General,◦Books,◦Family,◦Food — sharon @ 3:21 pm

The subject matter of this sparkling collection of essays is as familiar to me as anything; I’ve lived through a good portion of it myself. But I would not have written it; I could not have written it with such clarity and vividness. Heirloom

Heirloom is a collection of a dozen essays constituting a memoir of a life in transition from the humdrum to the excruciatingly laborious and excitingly chaotic. Tim, the author, graduated from Princeton with a degree in English with dreams of a writing career and, like many another struggling writer, found himself working a painful 9 to 5 to cover expenses. But he has other loves besides writing, and one of these – the lure and magic of the metamorphosis from seed through sprout and vine to succulent, flavorful fruit – was destined to become his defining passion, his livelihood as well as his sometime nemesis.

The cover itself, a mouthwatering collage of odd-shaped, multicolored heirloom tomatoes, draws you in; there’s the sense that what’s inside is different, more satisfying. And it is. This is not a book of how-to, nor a chronicling of varieties and characteristics of the fruit, not a cookbook nor an organic gardening manifesto. No, the subject matter and the language itself is every bit as colorful and tasty as the glistening orbs on the cover. From Tomato People:

One thing I’ve noticed is that during the most brutal part of summer, the tomato people go at it with an extraordinary singleness of purpose. Eckerton Hill has a daunting southern exposure, canted like a target for the sun’s angled rays. When the sun is burning holes through the afternoon, the tomato plants soak up light until they are limp with molten exhaustion. At night, all that suffering transfers to the fruit, turning the tomatoes every shade of the sun – off-white, pale yellow, dusky purple, blazing orange red. Come morning all these colors are hanging from the plants like gifts from some summertime Santa. By midday, the brightness and the weight of all the humidity leave you standing there, shadowless, the bare fact of yourself. You can either leave the field, as most would, or you can join in the activity orbiting the two sources of magnetism: the tomatoes, softening as fast as you can pick them, and the jubilant sun. I am always astonished at how the crew will stay out there until the last of the fruit is picked.

Accidental though the farmer in Tim may be, it’s clear the writer in him is intentional and well honed. Each of the twelve essays stands alone, and though some were published in part or in different form in Gourmet Magazine and in the Washington Post, they still form a well-unified whole in this book. From his descriptions of a tomato, so lucid you can taste it, to the insights into dealing with the eccentricities of some of New York City’s great chefs, to the history of his farm and of the local Mennonite families whence arose much of his knowledge of and delight in farming – all subjects find equally clear, precise and beautiful description in this book.

This is not a book about farming; it’s a book about the struggles in all of us to cope with factors we cannot control, and finding the beauty in them as we do. You can’t help but enjoy it as such.

Daniel, Tim, Bill & Sharon From left, Chef Daniel Boulud of New York City’s Restaurant Daniel, Writer/Farmer (or Farmer/Writer) Tim Stark, and Bill and Sharon – ragmongers and bloggers enjoying an alfresco luncheon of fresh farm produce at Eckerton Hill Farm.

(As I write this, the summer crop is coming upon us; Tim will be more farmer than writer the next couple of months, but I know he’ll be storing away intersting material for further essays and stories – and I’ll be blogging heirloom tomatoes along with heirloom linens.)

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