You Say Tomato…

Any of these names sound familiar?

Abraham Lincoln, Amana Orange, Arkansas Traveler, Aunt Ruby’s, Barnes Mountain, Belmont, Brandywine, Black Pineapple, Brave German, Cherokee, Chocolate, Great White, Juanne Flamme, Pink Ponderosa, San Marzano, Virginia Sweet, Hillbillly Potato, Woodle Orange, Mortgage Lifter, Garden Peach, Dr. Wyche’s Yellow and St. Pierre.

Some might not ring a bell, but thanks to people like Dr. Livingston, the father of the tomato, and Kansas City’s artisan tomato farmer Sky Kurlbaum, local heirloom tomatoes bearing these monikers are now plentiful in the Kansas City area.

I’d like to share with you the story of local attorney/tomato farmer Kurlbaum. He grew up on a family farm in Sandoval, Ill., and looked forward all year to eating tomatoes that were harvested from carefully cultivated plants. When Kurlbaum tried to grow tomatoes to taste like the ones he savored 35 years ago, he was disappointed. After the long wait for a taste, Kurlbaum found the tomatoes were missing the magic he remembered from childhood.

“These tomatoes just don’t taste like the ones we used to grow in Sandoval,” Kurlbaum remembers, thinking perhaps the climate and soil were the problems.

Then Kurlbaum read about heirloom tomato plants.

He thought, “Could it be the type of plants I’m growing that aren’t yielding good tomatoes?” He had been planting hybrid plants available at most nurseries, not knowing nurseries over the years traded old heirloom varieties for less tasty, more recent hybrids.

Kurlbaum ordered heirloom tomato seeds and planted them, hoping for the best-darned tomatoes ever. At harvest, he had his first taste of an heirloom tomato that pulled him back in time to warm summer Sandoval nights when eating a tomato in the field was akin to heaven on earth.

“Wow, flavor! That’s the way tomatoes should taste. Just give me a salt shaker and a spot in the dirt.”

The Kurlbaums developed their own process for growing the tomatoes. In the spring, Kurlbaum starts growing the seeds in the basement under halogen lights and in late March the family transplants the seeds into a greenhouse. On Mother’s

Day they do a second planting and put the young tomatoes into the ground. The Kurlbaums also use a technique called dry farming and only water the plants once so the roots will grow deeper into the ground. They mulch with old hay and use the lantern method of caging (suspending the cage above the plants from a guy wire). Kurlbaum respects the land by using sustainable farming methods and organic products for the pests.

Kurlbaum says experiences each year help him learn what works and what doesn’t. And of course the one thing Kurlbaum can’t control is Mother Nature—she’s been especially persnickety for the 2012 crop.

This year Kurlbaum and wife, Liz, sister-in-law Sally and their families—along with tomato-loving friends—planted 3,000 plants and 43 varieties at their 75-year-old farm in Kansas City, Kan. And this year—like the last three—you’ll find me along with my wife, Lisa, and my chef of many years, Marvin, picking heirloom tomatoes with the Kurlbaum crew. I can’t describe the feeling when you’re harvesting the tomatoes: the vine’s fresh smell, the hot summer heat, the raw earth pulverized

into your hands…it’s intoxicating.

Fried Kurlbaum’s 
Heirloom Tomatoes

On the Locavore Trail this month I discovered what just might be the finest tomato you’ll ever taste—I’m talking seriously good tomatoes. I’ve handpicked two recipes for enjoying Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomatoes.

3-4 Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomatoes
1 cup polenta
1/4 cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup buttermilk
4 eggs
6 tablespoons olive oil

Whisk eggs and buttermilk in a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Season polenta with pepper. Slice tomatoes ¼-inch thick and dust with flour. Dip heirloom tomato slices in buttermilk and egg mixture and then into the polenta. Add olive oil to sauté pan and heat on medium high. Place tomato slices in pan in a single layer. Cook until golden brown and turn and brown on other side. Place on paper towel and let sit 2-3 minutes to strain oil. Serve with Aunt Emma’s Chilled “Mater” Sauce.

Aunt Emma’s 
Chilled “Mater” Sauce

1 ¼ cup mayonnaise
½ cup pureed Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomatoes
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon capers
2 tablespoon green onion, minced
Tabasco to taste
1 teaspoon parsley finely chopped
Zatarain’s spice to taste

Mix all in bowl and chill.

Take it from this chef; you have to experience it to feel it. It makes you proud to live in Kansas!

Kurlbaum delivers his heirloom beauties to Hen House Markets and McGonigle’s Market and restaurants such as Michael Smith, Extra Virgin, Blue Grotto, Bristol, Jack Stack, Jasper’s, Lidia’s, 801 Chop House, Blanc Burgers & Bottles, Marco Polo’s, Gram & Dun, Beer Kitchen and many more. If you’re lucky, you might spy Liz Kurlbaum off 103rd Street with a sign claiming Fresh Local Heirloom Tomatoes!

Being good stewards of the land as successful artisan farmers, the Kurlbaums also give back. Each year a scholarship is awarded to students for college education, plus the family provides tomatoes to local food kitchens and pantries. In 2012 the Kurlbaums hope to deliver as much as 1,000 pounds of fruit to charity. That alone is all you really need to know about the Kurlbaums’ dedication, hard work and love of community.

Now that’s local, my friends!


For a taste of heirloom tomatoes at their best, attend Jasper’s Ristorante & Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomato Experience on August 13. Join Chef Jasper and the Kurlbaum family for a seminar, cooking demo and multi-course dinner featuring heirloom tomatoes—from appetizer to dessert. $45.00 per person (tax and gratuity additional). Call (816) 941-6600 for reservations or go online at to sign up on PayPal.

Categories: Food