When 88-year-old John Root was a boy, one of the joys of his life was eating the juicy heirloom tomatoes his grandparents grew in their home garden. Today, he found the seeds provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a national challenge to encourage gardening.
When 88-year-old John Root was a boy, one of the joys of his life was eating the juicy heirloom tomatoes his grandparents grew in their home garden.
“I don’t know how many times we had a lunch of bread, butter, tomato slices, salt and pepper. We’d eat till we could bust. It was so good,” recalled John, of Petersburg, Ill.
“Abraham Lincoln tomatoes” was what John’s grandfather called the red globes.
“But sometimes he got things mixed up, so I never knew if that’s what they really were called,” said John, who for many years managed the Menard Electric Cooperative in Petersberg. “They wouldn’t win a beauty contest, but they were full of flavor.”
Before the grandfather moved into a nursing home, he gave some of the seeds to his three grandchildren, including John.
“He told us all that he had one request: save the seeds and plant them. But somehow, over the years, we all lost them.”
Fast forward to February 2012.
The State Journal-Register newspaper of Springfield, Ill., reported that seeds from the heritage “Lincoln tomato” –– its official name –– were going to be given to the public at the Old State Capitol. The seeds were provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a national challenge to encourage gardening.
“When Dad saw that, he got so excited. I hadn’t seen him get so interested in something in a long time,” said John’s daughter, Marcia Cass of Springfield.
“My first thought was, ‘Grandpa DID have a good memory,’” John said. “My second thought was that I wanted to taste those tomatoes again.”
He wasn’t sure how many seeds he could get. So he showed up with his wife, Mildred, and daughter Marcia. Each of them got one packet of eight to 10 seeds. To John, the seeds were like gold.
“I kept visualizing over and over how they were going to taste,” he said. “Tomatoes today look good, but they just don’t have the flavor of the older varieties.” The Lincoln tomato was developed in Rockford, Ill., in the 1920s.
John started the seeds indoors. When temperatures warmed, he transferred most of the small plants outside. But something –– perhaps insects or rabbits –– destroyed them. He was devastated. But he still had about 10 seedlings left. He started looking around for a sunny, well-protected spot.
Marcia heard that the Illinois Department of Agriculture rents plots to the public in its community garden. Now in its fourth year, the garden in the infield of the racetrack at the Illinois State Fairgrounds has 172 spaces.
So Marcia called the agency and told the staff about her father’s desire to once again taste Lincoln tomatoes. The 12-by-15-foot plots had all been assigned, but Marcia got lucky. One of the gardeners had forfeited a spot. It was assigned to Marcia, and she planted the precious tomato plants there.
Today, they are loaded with small green tomatoes. They have not been pestered by disease or critters.
“We’ve had a time, but we’re not giving up,” said the retired Memorial Medical Center secretary.
Marcia has never tasted Lincoln tomatoes. She’s waiting for the day she can put them in a sandwich with Miracle Whip. But, more than that, she’s looking forward to the joy her father will experience when he once again gets to taste the tomatoes he remembers so vividly. He plans to put the tomato slices on buttered bread and sprinkle them with salt and pepper, just like he did so many times with his grandparents.
As his tomato plants grow in the community garden, so does his anticipation.
“I know they are going to taste as good as they did back then,” he said.
Follow-up: I’m happy to report that John Root has succeeded in his mission to grow and taste Lincoln tomatoes, an heirloom variety he enjoyed as a child.
"They were ready, and I was ready, and tomorrow would have been too late, so I devoured them," he said, noting that he sliced the tomatoes on buttered bread, just like he used to do years ago.
"I had my own feast. They were perfect," he said.
Food editor Kathryn Rem can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her via twitter.com/KathrynRemSJR.