How does a government consultant living in Brooklyn become a world famous gardening guru? In the case of Tim Stark, it was an accidental metamorphosis, or so claims the title of his quirky, captivating memoir Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer. Another explanation might be that it was Stark’s destiny to fulfill the promise of his family’s Eckerton Hill farm in Pennsylvania by connecting to his inner Tomato Person.
Stark’s story begins with the serendipitous discovery of discarded pipes and boards in a trash bin. “From these scraps, I saw in a flash of insight, I could construct a seed germination rack.” Already growing tomatoes and a few vegetables back on the farm, Stark knew something of what it takes to nurture seedlings into mature plants. What he didn’t realize immediately was that he would become obsessed, not even when three thousand tomato plants sprouted in the questionable environment of his makeshift green house. Not even when he was waking at 4:30 in the morning to tend his flock of seedlings. Not even during that first frantic summer of growing, weeding, picking, and hawking tomatoes. Shoppers at Union Square Greenmarket were ecstatic to find Stark’s plump heirlooms, but by the end of the first season, Stark himself declared, “I will never grow tomatoes again!”
The next year he expanded the operation. Oh, yeah. Tim Stark is a Tomato Person.
While Eckerton Hill farm grows a lot of different fruits and vegetables, it’s the tomatoes that garner the most attention, those juicy joys that are lusted after by thousands of people including chefs like Daniel Boulud and Dave Pasternack. Stark’s tomatoes have even made the cover of Gourmet magazine.
While some of us would happily read page after page about Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, and Mortgage Lifter, Heirloom is not strictly a book about tomatoes. Rather it is the unfolding of Stark’s true calling, the legacy he works to preserve, and the never-ending battles against Mega Mindset – the belief that bigger, perfect, and artificial is better.
The cast of characters range from a curmudgeonly neighbor with complicated legal ties to Eckerton Hill to an amiable Amish friend; from the Korean rice farmer transplanted to the Pennsylvania hills to the free-spirited tomato whisperer who spends the off-season going wherever the sun takes her. Stark, of course, is the eccentric city boy with lofty ideals, and he’s a natural target for ridicule by the industrial-strength farmers on all sides of his weedy truck patch.
Before he was an organic, locally-grown produce vendor, Tim Stark was a writer with an impressive collection of generic rejection slips. Either his writing skills grew along with his farm or those earlier editors were looking for the sort of mass-produced tasteless fare that abounds in the world of literature as well as produce. Heirloom is a flawless serving, full of profound flavors and intriguing spiciness. Stark creates his own recipe for this memoir in the way that only a true artist can do, and the end result is delightful and thoroughly satisfying.