However you pronounce it, Johns Island tomatoes are famously delicious, and prized well beyond the Lowcountry. (A friend arriving at a remote fishing camp in Alaska recently was delighted to find a crate of them in the camp kitchen.) 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, estimated that in 2015 alone, it sold 1.8 million pounds of local tomatoes to restaurant kitchens and produce markets, most of them during the summer growing season, which starts with planting in mid-March and early April for the first harvests in June. Popular heirloom varieties - like Purple Cherokee and Brandywine - are those that have been grown for at least fifty years.
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."