by Craig LeHoullier
As Slow Food Asheville ramps up to our 2017 Heritage Food Project and the celebration of heirloom tomatoes, it seems appropriate to hear a short story from Craig LeHoullier.
Though my introduction to gardening was via walks through my grandfather’s garden when very, very young, I first got my hands dirty in 1981 in a shared community plot as a newlywed, helped by my wife Susan. Heirlooms became the focus in 1986, after joining the Seed Savers Exchange. Little did I know the impact of a letter sent to me in 1990 by John D Green of Sevierville, TN. The plant resulting from the tiny packet of seeds that accompanied the letter produced a tomato the hue of which was essentially unknown; a dusky rosy purple color. The flavor was wonderful – intense, balanced, and complete.
Since Mr. Green’s letter indicated the variety (which came with no name) was over 100 years old and originated with the Cherokee Indians, it wasn’t hard to come up with the name Cherokee Purple. Aside from offering it through the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook the following spring, I sent a sample of Jeff McCormack, who owned Southern Exposure Seed Exchange at the time. Jeff gave me a call at the end of the growing season, sharing his favorable opinion of the newly named tomato’s flavor, but also his disdain for the color – “it looks like a leg bruise” were his words. Despite his misgivings, he listed it in his catalog. I continued to grow it year after year, and shared many samples of seeds with fellow SSE members.
Now it is 2017, and 27 years stand between Mr. Green’s decision to share his treasured seeds with me and today. When I think of the shocking popularity and widespread availability of Cherokee Purple, it brings to mind the fragility of the road that led from then to now. Any break in the chain – the various decisions to share, grow, sell that led from the 1800s until now – would deprive us of a tomato that seems to be pretty well liked.
That story is certainly unlikely enough as it stands, but as they say on TV – “wait, there’s more!”. In 1992, just one year after Cherokee Purple showed up in the Southern Exposure catalog, we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. On a farm about an hour from our house a market grower named Alex Hitt was seeking a special tomato with which to distinguish his farmer’s market offerings. Alex was one of the subscribers to a tiny heirloom tomato newsletter that I co-published with my tomato friend Carolyn Male. Alex obtained a sample Cherokee Purple just after I grew, named and began to distribute it to fellow gardeners. It thrived on his farm and his market customers loved it. One Sunday ten years ago, Alex and I ended up doing a cooking class together at Southern Seasons in Chapel Hill. I’d yet to meet Alex and didn’t yet know this story – which he told to the class, much to my delight.
The most unlikely story of my life is, therefore, two unlikely stories, planted by a generous gardener, Mr. Green in Tennessee, who must have spotted me as a good caretaker for his special tomato. I found the appropriate seed company – Southern Exposure – and it was clearly the right tomato with the right color and flavor at the right time. The circle was completed when I got to meet Alex and we shared the stage together, both talking about our love for Cherokee Purple, at the outset of our friendship which continues to this day.
Written by Craig LeHoullier, author of Growing Epic Tomatoes. Learn more about Craig and his wonderful tomato adventures at CriagLehoullier.com