Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

I have a friend on the West Coast that is a die-hard Cherokee Purple Tomato lover. I have to admit, they taste great. Everyone has different tastes that they look for in tomatoes – these were nice and sweet, no tartness.

A lot of people choose tomatoes for color and Cherokees are a beautiful thing. If you’re more concerned about color palette than the palate on the roof of your mouth, they are an excellent choice. They have this sort of purplish/red hue that just lights up a salad. Some of them can be as dark as a plum. When you bring your non-tomato lover friends over and serve one, you’ll probably see a confused look on their face. “Is this a tomato!? – tastes like one.”

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
Two organically grown Cherokee Purple Tomatoes. (cc) Dave Whitinger

I really like growing interesting fruit that makes people say “wow” when you put it on their plate. Cherokees are really sweet and they’re the type of tomato that you can just stick a toothpick in and serve at a cocktail party… At least a party for gardeners! I’ve seen them described on the net as having a “thickness to the skin.” I would put it as “crispness.” Crispness is a better word for Cherokees because of the little snap you get when you bite into one. It’s almost as if they have casings like sausages. It’s certainly not the type of tomato you would want to peel and/or can for a sauce.

I’ve heard of people describe Cherokee Purple’s as “watery.” There might be some truth to the “watery” description. However, I think the water content in tomatoes often has to do with when they are picked off the vine rather than the variety itself. I’ve found that when I pick tomatoes later in the season they are somewhat dryer on the inside, making them easier to cut and serve raw. The reason for this could be simple; they’ve just basked in the sun longer which dried up the H2O. Ultimately, I think tomatoes are juiciest when picked at peak ripeness, but that can turn into a whole other article.

The last time I had Cherokee tomatoes with my friend in the Bay Area, they were a bit on the watery side, but I do believe they were harvested early and hadn’t had a chance to “dry out” or become perfectly ripe fruit. My friend wanted me to taste them while I was in town. One thing I noticed about her garden was that she had extremely long roots. She plants from seeds, so the roots grow much longer than mine, which is relegated to the depth of the pot. I get roots that grow the length of the pot to about 12-16 inches, but hers extend well past four feet. Greater root depth means more access to water and thus more moisture for the fruit. That is what was contributing to the “watery” quality. So I think the general description of “watery” tomatoes has more to do with the planting and picking than the actual varieties. I think to label all Cherokee Purples as “watery” is unfair.

One thing I didn’t know about Cherokee tomatoes till writing this is that they have a lot of history. According to Wikipedia, they were first cultivated by the Cherokee people (go figure). I love learning about the history of my food, especially when it comes to tomatoes. I imagine tomato growing was a spiritual thing in Native American culture and when you eat something with a connective story behind it; it feels like you’re a part of that history. I guess tomato gardeners in the Midwest should take note that the Cherokee people were from Georgia and the Southeast has better tomato growing weather than what we’ve got up here. There’s also something about the red dirt down there – it must make for interesting growth soil (for better or worse). Nevertheless, as I said, I have a friend out West growing them, and when the weather is right, I’m thinking they’ll do well everywhere.

I did my research, asked around to my tomato growing friends and found that the Cherokee purple tomatoes made for nice tall plants with large fruit all around the country. One friend warned me about humidity though, which could play a factor here in certain states. In Illinois, we don’t exactly have summers with dry heat and as it starts warming up in May, things can tend to get a little muggy. She said that the humidity really dampened her plant’s growth.

If you have had the opportunity to try Cherokee Purple Tomatoes, you are in for a treat. I certainly miss the sweetness they have and their crisp bite. Hopefully, I will find some great ones at my local farmer’s market this summer. Whether you’re buying Cherokees at a farmer’s market or picking them from your home garden, do enjoy eating them in salads or other cold dishes. For tomatoes like these, they are best served raw to preserve their unique crisp quality. Bon’ appétit!

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