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Red Gold

With warming temperatures, one of Johns Island's most famous foods will begin appearing at farm stands all over the Lowcountry soon. Planting has already begun for the first tomato harvests in June, including popular heirloom varieties like Purple Cherokees and Brandywines, those huge, oddly shaped ones, which have been grown here for at least fifty years. Johns Island tomatoes are famously delicious, but what makes our tomatoes so much more delectable than the bland supermarket ones from who knows where?

One theory is the trace amounts of salt in the local water used for irrigation, which acts as a mild stressor for the plant and provokes a protective response that leads to higher than usual levels of compounds like lycopene, vitamins C and E, and certain flavonoids - all of which not only protect the fruit but make it more nutritious and flavorful. The sandy, porous Lowcountry soil plays a big part, too, helping to saturate the plant bed without trapping water too close to the roots.

Whatever the reason, our Johns Island tomatoes (and Wadmalaw Island's, too) account for the largest share of produce sales during the summer. Limehouse Produce, for example, once estimated that it sold 1.8 million pounds of local tomatoes to restaurant kitchens and produce markets in one year alone.

Although tomatoes, native to South America, were first reported under cultivation in the Carolinas in the early 17th century, they weren’t always popular with European settlers, who noted the tomato's lineage in the nightshade family and regarded them as poisonous. It wasn't until the Civil War that tomatoes proved to be an easily grown, preserved and transported food for troops in the field, starting the tomato's climb to the top of the summer menu. There's even a song about them, "Homegrown Tomatoes", which begins "Plant 'em in the spring/eat 'em in the summer/All winter without em's a culinary bummer."

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