For 20 years, the roaming Tomatomania plant sale has supplied Californians with hundreds of varieties of unique and classic seedling varieties. A new cookbook by the man behind Tomatomania, Scott Daigre (and co-author former L.A. Weekly contributor Jenn Garbee), aims to equip fellow tomatomaniacs with kitchen advice including how to make the most of bumper crops at the other end of the growing season and how to best cook a green tomato.
This year's Tomatomania sale kicks off March 6 in Corona Del Mar and will land in various L.A. neighborhoods starting March 20 — and don't be surprised if the sale soon offers Daigre's own “Maniac” line of tomatoes. Tomatomania, the book, is on sale now.
L.A. WEEKLY: What started your mania for tomatoes?
SCOTT DAIGRE: My grandfather’s love of the garden, and especially tomatoes, rubbed off on me at a very early age. I grew up in southern Louisiana and spent lots of time with him as a child. When I was five I decided I needed to have a garden like my papa’s, and with my parents’ help I planted my own rows of tomatoes and veggies. That was the beginning of a passion that turned out to be my career many years later.
While I love eating tomatoes (and all vegetables) in every conceivable way, it’s still the essence of the tomato — that bite of a ripe, simple, fresh, warmed-by-the-sun home grown tomato, that sends me (and so many people) reeling. You can taste the exponential difference between your home-grown versions and what you can buy most places. So each season reinforces this difference and every bite backs up all the reasons we work in the garden waiting for this summer treasure.
What are some of the best sellers at Tomatomania? What is new this year and what do you carry that's really rare?
It’s pretty easy to predict that tomatoes like Cherokee Purple, the standard bearer of black tomato taste, Sungold, the orange cherry that is quite clearly the world’s favorite tomato, and Carmello, a wonderful multi-purpose medium red, will rank high in the minds of most visitors at our Tomatomania events. This list widens with our selection each year as we introduce gardeners to classics they’ve just never seen or the latest varieties to hit the hybrid market.
In 2015, buyers will be introduced to Sweethearts, a new red grape that knocked us out last summer; Blue Beauty, a 2014 standout that carries antioxidant-rich anthocyanins; Captain Lucky, a sturdy new green-pink heirloom that did well in trials; as well as many more that we’ve observed through the years. We can’t possibly include all the varieties we love in a given season, so we’re working to expand our Tomatomania app to include a larger list. We’ll also feature a new dwarf series for those who like to grow in containers, varieties that are available in very few seed outlets.
Have you taken things into your own hands and developed your own variety?
We’ve not yet introduced our “Maniac” line of tomatoes, but that’s coming. Last year for the first time we offered [our] first cross seed, and we called it “Grab Bag." We had a blast growing out these seedlings, with pen in hand to record what happened. Seed from a first-cross or hybrid will generally revert back to a parent or some other generation so you never know what you’re going to get. This cross was between tomatoes carrying the blue anthocyanin gene, which resulted in a wide array of results. Two of the 50 plants we trialed had fruit worthy of seed saving, so we did. We’ll grow that out again this year and select from the plants that again exhibit those traits we found exciting — or delicious.
What made you decide to write a cookbook?
For years at events, we’ve been getting the “Where’s the cookbook?” question. Since we’re taking care of the first part of the season, it was natural that we offer our friends and customers a way to use their bumper crops at the other end of the growing season. When an offer was made I jumped at the chance.
Which recipe in the book uses tomatoes in the most out-there way?
It doesn’t normally occur to me to cook with green tomatoes. We wait patiently all season for them to ripen so isn't that counterintuitive? In reality it’s a great way to use tomatoes but the recipes featuring unripe fruit are still for me the most unusual we offer. And hey, sometimes accidents happen in the garden. If Rover digs up your fruiting tomato plant you need a way to use green fruit.
What are your three favorite tomatoes?
I always say the last one I ate, so in this case I guess the last three I ate? For the book I chose to feature some all-stars from a recent season, but really, whenever I consider this question I turn it around a bit and ask myself, What tomato would I miss every season if it weren’t in my garden?" I love the taste of the ones in the book, but it’s more than that — it’s a relationship with a variety based on taste, past performance, the name, color, shape and even the seasonal vigor of the plant that will produce this list.
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The book includes your favorite four-step tomato recipe. Will you share it with us?
Pick a perfectly ripe tomato right from the vine. Wash it (or not). Cut it (or not). Salt it (or not). Then eat it.