According to Limehouse Produce, the No. 1 vegetable filling the pantries of this city's restaurants is none other than, wait for it, the slicing tomato. That's right, Limehouse sells 1.8 million pounds of the red orbs annually. That's more than the 1.5 million pounds of russet potatoes they sell, more than the 1.27 million pounds of iceberg lettuce, and more than the 1.25 million pounds of bananas. And that's not counting the roma, cherry, and grape varieties of tomatoes they sell too.
Now we know many an editorial spread has been dedicated to beefsteak tomatoes' more glamorous cousins — those multi-hued heirloom varieties that fill this city's farmers markets and Instagram accounts throughout the summer — but when our brief 'mater season is over (and it's just a short six weeks mind you), that doesn't diminish the demand for the more traditional Solanum lycopersicum.
Limehouse Produce's buyer Weston Fennell chalks up tomatoes' year-round appeal to their omnipresence in our casual dining fare. "They're the No. 1 selling item if you combine all of the produce categories and that's pretty consistent across the country," Fennell says. "When you think about eating in a casual setting — which is what most food service business is across the country — you've got tomatoes on every sandwich, every salad you buy. It's a very common item."
Of course, history reminds us that it wasn't always this way. As Sara Bir writes in her Modern Farmer story "From Poison to Passion: The Secret History of the Tomato," early colonists feared the fruit, dismissing them as potentially lethal due to being classified as nightshade. But she adds, "The Civil War was a tomato game-changer. Canneries boomed, filling contracts to feed the Union army. Tomatoes, which grew quickly and held up well during the canning process, rose to the occasion. After the war, demand for canned products grew, with more tomatoes being canned than any other vegetable. And this meant more farmers needed to grow them."
America's craving for tomatoes has hardly waned. In fact, Fennell believes it's even stronger in the South. Thanks to the warm climate and extended growing season that starts in Florida, then moves up the coast to North Carolina, he believes those below the Mason-Dixon line have an inherent appreciation for the fruit.
And Charleston chefs confirm the staple is a must-have. Jeremiah Bacon of The Macintosh and Oak Steakhouse, for instance, sources farm-fresh tomatoes by following their availability up and down the East Coast from spring until fall. During that time, Bacon goes through 35-40 pounds of tomatoes a day, so it's no wonder he goes out of his way to get the best. He has to, so The Macintosh can keep up with the demand for its famous tomato pie. "We'd sell out every night," he says. "We do a bacon cheddar dough with that, and people would get angry if we ran out."
The six or so weeks when Charleston is its most miserably hot is when tomato season is in full bloom and chefs proudly serve up dishes using tomatoes from area farms. But once the season winds down, Bacon — along with other local chefs like Early Bird Diner Chef Dexter Haigler and EVO Chef Blake McCormick — turn to other purveyors like Kurios Farms for tomatoes they can use on menu must-haves like salads and burgers until the warm weather returns. Based in Monck's Corner, Kurios makes hydroponic vegetables like Bibb lettuce and cucumbers, but their specialty is the ever-popular tomato.
Charleston's other source of hydroponic tomatoes is Wadamalaw's Holy City Farms. For owner Shawn Ransford, tomatoes are the hardest plants to grow. "It's a long-term crop, but it's rewarding taste-wise and that's why I do it," he says. "It's a lot of fun, crazy-hard work, but tomatoes are my passion." Ransford reports that he sells every tomato he grows, and many end up in The Lot's kitchen. Though The Lot's Chef Alex Lira understands why one would have reservations about the technological aspect of hydroponic tomatoes, he's still all for it.
"I know there are a lot of skeptics when it comes to hydroponics or anything grown hydroponically — when it comes to their integrity — but this guy has a year-round, beautiful variety of heirloom hydroponic tomatoes," says Lira. "If the product wasn't really good by the end, I probably wouldn't be for such a science-forward technique, but he seems to have not sacrificed the quality of the tomato, which is super important."
And don't get it twisted, heirloom doesn't mean a tomato isn't a slicing tomato. "To be heirloom, by definition, a tomato variety has to be at least 50 years old," explains Ransford. Brandywine and Purple Cherokee qualify as beefsteak heirlooms, for instance. "However, many people now attribute the term heirloom to the color and taste. But if something looks like a non-traditional tomato, meaning it's not 50 years old, that could be a hybrid, which isn't heirloom." Suffice it to say, defining tomatoes is a loose business and ultimately the biggest concern for chefs is taste rather than title.
Al Di La's chef Mark Kohn says he orders at least 100 pounds a week from Limehouse for his thriving Italian restaurant in Avondale, though fresh ones from local farms, namely Ambrose Family Farm, are his priority during the season. Tomatoes, be it canned, cherry, or heirloom, are Al Di La's No. 1 purchase in general.
But why the draw for so many chefs? "The simplicity in its preparation makes it just a real joy to prepare," says McCormick, head chef at the popular EVO Pizzeria in Park Circle. "Do it right, and it doesn't take very much to make it delicious. It's all about the seasoning and serving it at the right time. There are so many ways you can utilize tomatoes. And I feel like they're real approachable for people, so it's a win-win for everybody."
As simple as they are, you can also get pretty creative with them.
"They're one of the most versatile ingredients," Early Bird's Dexter Haigler says. "You can do almost as many things to a tomato as you can do to an egg." At the über-high-volume diner, you can find them in everything from chutneys to soups. But it's the restaurant's signature dishes like shrimp and grits with tomato-bacon gravy and fried-green tomatoes that really drive up their tomato intake.
For Haigler, tomatoes also trigger nostalgia. "I think it's true especially for us, because what we do is comfort food and what we're shooting for is people's associations with their memories with food," Haigler says. "All my grandparents grew up growing their own food, and still do for the most part, and so that fresh-from-the-garden, still-warm-from-the-summer-sun taste of a tomato, it takes me right back there. And I think it's like that with a lot of people."
The same is certainly true for many, like Chef Kohn, who recalls growing up in rural Maryland. "I lived across the street from a farmer," Kohn says. "He did tomatoes and beans, and as a child I enjoyed running through the field, with the beans kind of covering me over in a canopy. We would always run through there and he'd let us pick beans and eat tomatoes."
For others, like Lana's Chef John Ondo, it's the classic Southern sandwich that jogs their memories. "I grew up in Johns Island, so to me summertime was white bread, tomatoes, black pepper — and eat it on the porch," remembers Ondo.
Whether it's the nostalgia, versatility, or variety in which they come, one thing is for sure — tomatoes tend to make folks emotional. To properly explain their effect, Ondo points to a tune. "Guy Clark kind of hit the nail on the head with the song, 'Homegrown Tomatoes,'" he says before quoting the lyrics: "'The only two things that money can't buy/ That's true love and homegrown tomatoes ... Plant 'em in the spring, eat 'em in the summer/ All winter without 'em's a culinary bummer ... You can eat 'em with eggs, you can eat 'em with gravy/ You can eat 'em with beans, pinto or navy.'"