Taste drew Kansas City, Kan., farmers into heirloom tomatoes

09/10/2013 2:50 PM

09/10/2013 2:50 PM

It’s been a late year for Liz and Sky Kurlbaum.

The cold and wet spring has slowed the maturation of their prize crop, about 3,000 heirloom tomato plants. But, as I spoke to Liz heading into the heart of summer, the weather had heated up, and so had the growth of the tomatoes.

“We were delayed by 10 days or so, but if the weather holds, we should produce a pretty good crop this year,” She told me. “We have about 30 different types of heirloom tomatoes, and they’re all delicious.”

Liz and Sky Kurlbaum know of what they speak. They’ve been growing heirloom tomatoes on their Kansas City, Kan., farm since 1989.

Before that, Sky Kurlbaum’s family grew delicious home grown tomatoes on his family’s farm in Sandoval, Ill., for more than 35 years. It was the flavor of those tomatoes that eventually drew the Kurlbaums into the land of heirlooms.

“We grew these incredibly flavorful tomatoes back in Sandoval, and when I got to Kansas and planted tomatoes, they just didn’t taste the same,” Sky said. “I heard about these heirloom seeds and bought them. A neighbor helped me grow the plants from seeds, and I was hooked.”

I don’t want to get too technical — meaning, I’m really not equipped to get too technical — but heirloom tomato seeds, unlike hand-pollinated hybrids, are the result of “open” pollination by the wine, birds, or insects.

The tomatoes are prized for certain characteristics, and the seeds are often saved and passed down from generation to generation. Heirloom tomatoes are more colorful, more flavorful and juicier than any tomato you will find at your average supermarket.

They are both highly prized and increasingly popular. But, make no mistake about it, heirloom tomatoes are still a niche market, and almost all times, a hand sell.

“My background is in sales and Sky is a lawyer. He was sharing a basket of tomatoes with a client down at a restaurant on the plaza, and the chef was blown away by their flavor,” Liz told me. “I had no problem talking to chefs. Michael Smith and Debbie Gold at 40 Sardines and Mike McGonigle at McGonigle’s Fine Meats were early customers. We just built it from there.”

In addition to McGonigle’s, you can find Kurlbaum’s heirloom tomatoes at Conveniently Natural on Southwest Trafficway, but mainly you’ll find them in restaurants.

They’re featured in roughly 30 Kansas City area restaurants, including some of the best in town: Jasper’s, Extra Virgin, The Bristol, Lidia’s, Michael Smith’s, and Story, just to name a few. In fact, it was a post on Facebook by Jasper Mirabile that turned me on to Kurlbaum’s tantalizing tomatoes.

I’m so glad he did. With names like Abraham Lincoln, Aunt Ruby’s Green, Black Zebra, Chocolate Striped, Yellow Mortgage Lifter, and the Hillbilly Potato Leaf, each with their individual origins and histories, the tomatoes are as interesting as they are delicious, just like the Kurlbaum’s story.

“I was raised on my family’s farm, and we wanted to teach our five kids the work ethic and lifestyle of a farm life. We’ve done that. In fact, our oldest son, Max, a high school senior, is the farm foreman,” Liz said with pride. “Still, I always tell Sky, ‘Don’t give up the day job!’”

And I would add, “Don’t give up the Heirloom tomatoes either!”

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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