Tuesday, June 9, 2015

London Grove Tomato

The London Grove Tomato 
It's not everyday I'd write about a tomato.  But this is a tomato that my late father developed, and, for some time now, I've been crusading to fix the London Grove Tomato's provenience properly in Chester County, Pennsylvania gardening history.  

The London Grove Tomato, until recently known mostly to patrons of the London Grove Plant Sale in Kennett Square, PA and others in those environs, has begun to appear on a few websites with a strikingly dissonant description.  For example, on the Happy Cat website,  the London Grove Tomato is described as  “A very old and rare Quaker Heirloom from friends of ours here in Chester County,” 

The London Grove Tomato appears on other websites with similar descriptions.  Amishland Heirloom Seeds says it’s also called the Rabbit’s Foot Tomato.  The newsletter of Buy Local Buy PA writes that the London Grove Tomato is said to have been in the “London Grove Quaker community for about 100 years.”  Wow.

My father, Leo Robert Daiuta, is generally acknowledged as the person who created this tomato and then began selling it at the London Grove Plant Sale in Kennett Square, PA, hence the eponymous name.  If the London Grove Tomato is 100 years old, my father must have been going on about 150 when he died this past August 2014 at the actual age of 92.

While my father is no longer here to answer questions about the tomato, I do have jotted down a little history of the tomato as he gave it to me back in 2008.  My account has been corroborated by others in the London Grove/Kennett area, though, absent their corroboration, I'd be quite confident that my accounting is about as accurate a one as you'll get.

My father was a first generation Italian who grew up in West Chester, PA and after marrying my mother, they moved to Kennett Square in 1947.  In the early 1950s both he and my mother, neither of them previously Quakers, joined the London Grove Monthly meeting in Kennett Square, PA hence my father's (and the tomato's) connection with the Quaker community in the area.

A Quaker provenience for the lovely London Grove Tomato is shaky.  At least part of the reason the London Grove Tomato exists at all is because my father, a zealous gardener, wanted to grow the “paste tomato” that he remembered his mother using and that his father or a neighboring uncle probably grew in a small back yard in West Chester.  If the London Grove Tomato is anything, it’s maybe Italian-Quaker though it's more definitely Italian-American, just like my father.

As for the age of the London Grove Tomato, I don’t think my father would put it at much more than 40 years old.  As he told it to me, in the mid 1970s, my father asked a cousin in Italy to bring him the seed for the Corno di Vaca tomato, a long, hollow tomato in the shape of a cow’s horn that the Italians used to make tomato paste.  The hollowness of the tomato was  a minus in my father’s mind and so he set out to come up with something more to his liking, deciding to cross the Corno di Vaca with a Rutgers.  

My father was an engineer by training and an incurable inventor by nature.  He sought to modify or re-create nearly everything that crossed his path.  The tomato may have been just one more of his projects to pass the time, but given the intentional care he gave to this project over a period of growing seasons, I suspect he had a particular result in mind.  That he saw his new creation as finito is evidenced at least in part by the fact that my mother staged several photo shoots of the tomato on our back patio!  Her photo shows the familiar cow horn shape with a shining, unblemished and smooth red skin.  Now that’s a tomato!

As people enjoy the London Grove Tomato it occurs to me they might want to forego romantic images of industrious Quakers tilling the soils of Chester County, PA 100 years ago.  Rather, I would hope they’d picture the stalwart Romans of the early days of the Republic with their love of the plow and the earth and their pride in all that honest sweat and toil could produce from their land. This is after all a tomato of Italian origin, from an Italian-American whose "backyard" garden covered a half acre of land and yielded a harvest to feed our family for the entire year and then some. The original farm to fork kind of thing you might say. 

The newer generation of farmers, those at Happy Cat and Amishland as for-instances, might be said to farm as part of a whole philosophy of life defined by an ideology of food or a politics of gardening.  Their outlook might be said to draw from or encompass the slow food movement, the farm to table (or directly to the fork) push, the enjoinders to eat fresh and local and organic, to embrace tradition, to preserve the environment, to eschew the military-industrial complex while you're at it.  And, even in the 21st century, to get back to the earth, a place apparently not yet reached since the journey there began in the 1970s.  Still, one would think these philosopher-farmers would be interested in accuracy. When I sent a message to Happy Cat Farms saying that their description of the London Grove Tomato was off, I got a response that said:"Hello,Sorry but it is you who is wrong, but thanks for writing. Happy cat."  Alas, their dissonant description of a "Quaker" London Grove Tomato remains on their website.  

By now there are probably many variations on the original Corno di Vaca (which itself may have many different names) that the Italian immigrants of the late 19th century brought over to the U.S.  In fact, in Staten Island, NY, I’ve seen an accidental cross between the Corno di Vaca and a cherry tomato.  While there may be other Italian Luther Burbanks out there the only one I know of is my father.  I’m very proud of his Italian heritage and I think of the semi-Italian London Grove tomato as a part of his legacy.  

May the London Grove Tomato live on! And may my father rest in peace.  And, Buon Gusto as you eat tomatoes this summer, especially should you sample the fine London Grove Tomato.

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