I admit it, I have a slight obsession with Mennonite tomatoes.
It started one day 2 years ago at the Peaceful Valley Organic Farm Supply store in Grass Valley, CA. While I was waiting for my order of various farm supplies to be filled I perused the seed racks and found the Old German Tomato, a Mennonite heirloom. Being 1/4 Mennonite and having a Mennonite middle name (Fretz), I didn’t want to spend any more money than I already had that day, so I didn’t buy the seeds. Anyway, they were described as (if you read between the lines) kind’a ugly and low yielding.
I stopped at my parents house in Sacramento on the way back to Modesto and told my mother, who was brought up Mennonite and Lutheran in Pennsylvania, that I had seen Mennonite tomato seeds. Her expression of approval changed to disappointment when I said I didn’t buy them. “YOU DIDN’T BUY THEM?” Coming from her, any admonition to spend money was to be taken very seriously, so I went straight to the computer and ordered the seeds online.
I planted the seeds and tended the plants. (In fact, that spring I was offered an apprenticeship on another farm, and one factor in my turning the offer down was that I didn’t want to leave my Old German seedlings behind.) When the plants produced, the tomatoes were a bit ugly and low yielding, just as the packet said. But they were also huge, yummy, and Mennonite.
When I bought the seeds, I’d never knowingly eaten a specifically “Mennonite” tomato, and had no basis to judge it’s adaptability to California. Growing unproven seed from across the country doesn’t really seem like something a practical Mennonite farmer would do. In fact, it seems pretty silly.
But here’s the thing. Say the phrase “Scots-Irish” and nothing really comes to my mind (sorry Dad’s ancestors) . The words pecan, alligator, broiler chickens, soybeans, or cotton, may remind me of my wonderful relatives in Georgia who grow those things… but they really don’t make me want to put an alligator in the pond.
“Mennonite” on the other hand, contains an entire ideal world in a single word. It’s the thought of a simple farm life and close community amid green hills and streams, and a sense of pride in their hard work, faith, and general way of life. Way out here in California, on a sunny day off, it’s easy to idealize a far away time and place. But having that ideal isn’t a bad thing; in fact it’s good to be reminded of ideals sometimes, even if they aren’t ever fully realized. Plus, “Mennonite” tomatoes come with an interesting cultural history, are a good example of heirlooms, and remind me to make funny cake or shoo fly pie once in a while.
So I’m happy to announce that this year’s Old German Mennonite heirloom tomatoes are busy sprouting in the greenhouse. They are there along with the better producing, more beautiful, disease resistant, standard varieties and other heirlooms. Though I will probably never rely on heirlooms, I will probably always have something “Mennnonite.” After all, who wouldn’t want to munch on a giant tomato and dream about a perfect life?