You have likely tasted Craig LeHoullier’s work, but you may not realize it.
The North Raleigh man is responsible for naming and saving the Cherokee Purple tomato, as well as championing countless other heirloom varieties and helping lead an effort to develop dozens of dwarf tomato varieties, perfect for patio and balcony gardeners. LeHoullier is also well known for his annual Tomatopalooza tomato tasting events, which he organized at locations across the Triangle for a decade.
Now LeHoullier, 59, has turned his 30 years’ worth of tomato gardening experience into a new book, “Epic Tomatoes,” which was recently released by Storey Publishing. LeHoullier will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh.
LeHoullier is an obsessive hobbyist. A chemist by training, this former GlaxoSmithKline project manager brews his own beer, roasts his own coffee beans and grows a lot of his own food. Over three decades, he’s planted about 2,000 tomato varieties in his yard as well as in pots on his deck and in his driveway.
“I have a major in tomatoes and minors in peppers and eggplant,” LeHoullier quipped earlier this week.
His 256-page book is a guide for gardeners interested in growing heirloom varieties – from planting and harvesting to troubleshooting and seed saving. It also offers a history of heirloom tomatoes, their recent revival and a chronicle of LeHoullier’s journey from hybrid tomato grower to heirloom evangelist. The book includes salsa, gazpacho and sauce recipes, canning instructions and vignettes about each of LeHoullier’s top 10 tastiest tomatoes.
A friend gave LeHoullier what may be the ultimate compliment about the book: “Reading the book is like taking a walk in the garden with you.”
One of LeHoullier’s favorite sections is a few pages in the back featuring handwritten letters from other gardeners who shared seeds with him for such gems as the Mexico Midget, Mortgage Lifter and Anna Russian. (When LeHoullier looks out at his garden, he sees not vegetable plants but the people who shared the seeds with him.)
LeHoullier hopes “Epic Tomatoes” inspires more people to become avid heirloom gardners, save seeds and share them with others, like he did when he became a listed member of the Seed Savers Exchange in 1986. LeHoullier fears for the future of such sharing; he says Seed Savers listed members peaked at 1,000 about 10 years ago and is now down to about 700.
“I’m concerned. Gardening goes through fads, and heirlooms have been a great fad,” LeHoullier said. “When things go off trend, they can get lost. If this happens with heirloom food, we run the risk of losing that again.”
This is LeHoullier’s mission with this book and hopefully more to come: “This is all about bringing gardening to more people.”