DURHAM — Unless you hear it yourself, you wouldn't know that a person could feel so passionately about a common tomato. Or a pepper. Or just about any other vegetable most people take for granted.
But the connoisseurs who trekked to Durham on Saturday in search of heirloom seeds are no ordinary gardeners. They are on a lifelong quest for the rarest of vegetable varieties whose reputations for taste have attained near-mythical status. Tomatoes as exquisitely named as the pungent cheeses of the Old World -- Azoychka, Blondkopfchen, Fablonelystynj -- or known by whimsical nicknames such as Lollipop or PI 205040.
Heirloom enthusiasts swapped exotic seeds and cultivating tips at the 22nd annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference in downtown Durham. The conference promotes small, local farms, many of them organic, which often specialize in heirloom varieties sought by chefs and other people in the know.
"You can grow varieties that have incredible flavor," said Lee Barnes, an environmental consultant and seed-preservation specialist from Waynesville. "Grocery store tomato varieties are grown to ship across the country without bruising -- but they have no flavor."
There were thousands of seeds arrayed on tables, free for the taking. Washed and dried, the seeds were displayed in plastic bags or glass jars.
Seeds quickly found their way into paper packets, neatly labeled to be stowed away for over-wintering in preparation of next year's planting.
The curious gathered in search of the miracle plant, asking: How do you cook this one? What does it taste like? Do you have Cherokee tomatoes? How can I find a ...
Larry Bohs of Durham donated seeds of three tomato varieties that he developed in his own garden, including one, Liam's Brandywine, that he named after his son.
"It's a very large pink, incredibly delicious tomato," Bohs said. "It's just nice to have my own varieties."
Ray Tarlton and his wife, Mary, selected a mild hot pepper called "Aji Dulce" that doesn't scorch the tongue, as well as Oak Leaf Lettuce, so called for its distinctive shape.
Tarlton is enthralled by the German Queen. He grows this heirloom tomato in his organic greenhouse in Monroe among two dozen tomato varieties and 20-odd peppers.
"It's really an ugly tomato, but it's got the best taste of any tomato I've every eaten," Tarlton said. "It's sort of like a striped tomato, a zebra tomato."
Heirlooms are treasured as a means of preserving a dwindling botanical heritage that's being crushed by mass-production agriculture. In the rush to standardize agriculture, many traditional varieties have already been lost to cultivation, existing only in old farmers almanacs and musty catalogs. Among the lost: Thomas Jefferson's beloved cider apple, the Taliaferro, once exuding the silkiest of Champagnes that modern palates shall never savor.
In a counterculture stand against mass-produced plants, some refuse to eat produce from a grocery store. They say ingesting such insipid pulp is unthinkable once you have tasted a gourmet vegetable picked fresh and ripe, preferably blemished with bumps and bruises that bespeak perfection in horticulture. Fanciers of heirlooms curse grocery store produce as chemical-laden, dye-infused, genetic freaks devised in labs as if to deprive humanity of the sacred pleasures of gastronomy.
"I will work like the devil to get five plants that taste great," said D.D. Gamble, a Waxhaw resident who operates a two-acre organic farm. "That's what's being bred out of commercial plants. They want them to ripen at the same time, to ship well. They don't care how it tastes. If you don't buy it, some sucker will."
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