To see where some of city’s most sought-after heirloom tomatoes are grown, you need to ignore the natural curve of Donahoo Road in Kansas City, Kan., and head straight down a gravel driveway. The blind entrance leads to the base of a grassy knoll where approximately 3,000 vines curve gently under the weight of their fruit.
“It’s been a great tomato year,” crows Liz Kurlbaum, who is known to local chefs as “The Tomato Lady.” “Did you bring your gardening gloves?”
Kurlbaum, co-owner of Kurlbaum Farm with her husband, Sky Kurlbaum, hands a visitor her own gloves then points at each tomato that needs to be picked as we work on down the row. The green and orange orbs are headed to some 30 top restaurants around town, including Michael Smith’s, Jasper’s, Pierpont’s, J. Gilbert’s, The Oliver, The Bristol, Beer Kitchen, Affare and Piropos.
Kurlbaum Heirloom Tomatoes also supplies a caterer, three grocery stores and hundreds of ‘tomaniac’ followers — the term she uses to describe those who never tire of BLTs or caprese salads.
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A summer of hot days and cool nights has created a prolific crop with a burst of flavor. The 38 tomato varieties offer flashes of pink, green, yellow and orange — but almost never bright red — because the gene that turns supermarket-variety hybrid tomatoes red “simultaneously turns off the flavor gene.”
Her current favorite heirloom varieties?
“The Lucid Gem has been a visual stunner,” she says. “It’s tangerine-size, with a yellow-striped top, and the bottom looks like it has been dipped in purple paint.”
Another favorite is the fuzzy Peach Tomato. She rubs two pale peachy colored fruit on her shirt sleeve and hands one to me. We eat the warm and tasty tomatoes out of hand, like an apple.
The narrow 65-acre strip of land where the tomatoes are grown has been in the family since 1951. The fertile ground stretches all the way north to the Missouri River. Kurlbaum’s maiden name is Sigler, and her father bought the parcel from the original owners, who bought it from Native Americans.
The youngest of 11 children, she grew up there and recalls finding arrowheads and bits of pottery while playing with her siblings near two natural waterfalls on the property.
Her father planted an orchard that included 5,000 peach trees and 1,000 apple trees, but husband Sky, known as “The Tomato Sommelier,” replaced the orchards with tomato plants and a hoop house to start the seedlings.
The Kurlbaums dry-farm their tomatoes, working with whatever precipitation Mother Nature rains down. The sandy loam left by receding Ice Age glaciers created a rich soil that grows flavorful tomatoes, although some observers have suggested “it’s more suited for a vineyard than a tomato farm,” Kurlbaum says, adding, “but Sky doesn’t drink.”
Tending tomatoes has become a summer way of life for the Kurlbaums, their five children and their various extended family members and friends: “It’s a passion gone wild,” Kurlbaum says.
The property, which the family no longer lives on, includes a house and a picturesque deck where the Kurlbaums co-host special-event tomato dinners prepared by local chefs. “We challenge them to use tomato in every course,” she says.
A recent dinner concluded with tomato shortcake featuring candied heirloom tomatoes and tomato whipped cream. “A BLT is the most exciting thing I make,” she says. “They transform the tomatoes into amazing dishes. It’s like ‘Chopped’ at the farm.”
Once picked, the highly perishable tomatoes are ticking time bombs: “The goal is to get them to restaurants, grocery stores or people’s kitchens within 24 hours. They’re garbage in a few days. Once they are off the vine, they need to get to somebody’s plate.”
Refrigeration ruins the cell structure of a tomato, but freezing (cut the cores and place in a zipertop bag) will preserve the harvest. “There’s nothing better than to pull them out Super Bowl Sunday and cook them down and add them to chili or spaghetti sauce,” Kurlbaum says. “I have turned more people on to doing that. Freeze one bag and you’ll be back to see me.”
Kurlbaum predicts this year’s prolific fresh tomato season should last through the end of September, so get them while they last.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor, lead restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her at email@example.com. She tweets at @kcstarfood and @chowtownkc.