What's In Season

The Allure of the Cherokee Purple Tomato

The secret flavor of the South’s sweetest tomato

Photo: John Burgoyne

Nothing says summer in the South like a great tomato, and the Cherokee Purple is one of Dixie’s finest. Legend has it that Cherokee Indians gave the seeds of this distinctive deep purple-red variety to a few Sevierville, Tennessee, residents more than a century ago. It remained mostly a secret until 1990, when a small envelope of seeds found its way to tomato guru and grower Craig LeHoullier. He in turn began spreading the word, much to the delight of tomato buffs like chef Walter Bundy, of Lemaire restaurant in Richmond, Virginia.

“When you know the history of what you’re growing and eating, where these seeds have come from, putting them on the plate for guests is really exciting,” Bundy says. With a sweet yet complex flavor that he describes as slightly smoky or wine-like, the tomatoes usually start showing up at farmers’ markets in July. Bundy uses them in gazpacho or in a colorful tomato salad with Brandywine tomatoes (pink) and Green Zebras (green and yellow stripes). But it’s hard to go wrong any way you cut it. “Just slice them up and enjoy them with a bit of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil,” he says. “Heirlooms are the essence of summer.”