The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and neither does the tomato roll far from the vine.
John Koritko, “Buck” to his friends, reminisced about growing up in Uniontown in the 1950s, near the company “patch,” rows of duplexes knit together with gardens and fences. His maternal grandfather was an entrepreneur who worked in the coal mine during the day and drove a horse-drawn ice cream wagon in the evening. The extra income afforded the family a larger home just outside of the patch with a double lot, one devoted to his garden. Koritko’s mom inherited the family home because her siblings moved out of town, to Cleveland, where there were jobs in the automotive industry, and the garden was an added benefit.
“That garden was 90 percent tomatoes,” said Koritko, slipping into the western Pennsylvania twang as he reminisced. “My mother planted kohlrabis around the edge. And they had some peppers. That’s all they grew in the garden. They had an apple tree and a pear tree. The apples would go into a bushel basket and get stored in the cellar, but she canned the tomatoes, smashing them into the jars after she dipped them by hand into boiling water, and she canned pears, too. The tomatoes lasted us a long time, rows and rows of canned tomatoes lined up on a shelf in the root cellar. We would have them in the winter on cube steak that she pounded flat and pan fried.”
“It was my mother’s job to tie up the tomato plants in the early summer when my dad was at work. She ripped rags into long strips and used those to tie the vines to tall, thick wooden stakes. It’s still the best way, way better than any twine and lifetime stakes that they sell today,” Koritko said.
He said his parents used chicken manure to fertilize, “because they kept chickens back then. My dad made a tea out of it and it was my job to pour a little potful of it onto the base of the plants. I didn’t like that job, I remember that. There was a contest in the neighborhood — who grew the first tomato and who grew the biggest. My dad always won for biggest, and he used to dole them out one at a time to his friends, but he would take a big basket of them to the nuns who were so excited to get them. ‘Oh, the Pink Cadillacs!’ they would say, habits fluttering as they rushed the door at the convent when he delivered them. I used to sit in the car and watch them be so happy for a change.”
John Koritko Sr., known as “Cadillac John” in the neighborhood, drove a Cadillac, worked long days in the mine and grew memorable tomatoes. His son, owner of Lion Country Supply, has a penchant for fancy cars and tomatoes and is known at his favorite breakfast spot as “Tomato Man,” toting the fruits along and leaving a trail of happy servers in his wake. Though he grows several varieties of the tomatoes, he said his favorite is the Pink Cadillac heirloom that descends from those Uniontown tomatoes grown in the 1940s.
“My dad died in 1974, and I was out of the house by that time, up here in Centre County starting my business, Lion Country Fur Post, which eventually became Lion Country Supply,” Koritko said. “I had no time for gardening in those early days. Mom stopped growing tomatoes, except for a couple of plants near the house, but eventually she needed to go into a nursing home after she lost her leg. She died in 2001 at 84, and at her funeral, Mrs. Sepski from across the street came up and gave my sister, Sandy, a medicine jar with some seeds in it that my dad had given her back in the ’70s. I still have the jar. It took me a couple of years, but I started growing them, though I didn’t know if they would germinate after 30 years.”
Heirloom plants come from seeds that have been passed down by a family or group that preserved them and are usually more than 50 years old and often pre-date World War II. Heirlooms are always open-pollinated by insects or wind and exhibit the traits of the parent plant. Hybrids have been an important commercial option since the 1960s, when plant breeders were determined to come up with garden crops that wouldn’t fail the home gardener. Hybrid seed will not produce similar plants when saved from year to year because plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties in order to produce a plant with the best traits of two parents. Hybrid plants are not genetically modified, which may mix genes from other species.
Heirloom tomatoes are very popular today because they have more flavor nuances and provide a connection to the past. They are much more diverse than hybrid varieties, which are bred to look round and red, resist disease, mature early and provide a better yield with less care. Heirloom tomatoes can be classified as family heirlooms, commercial heirlooms, mystery heirlooms and created heirlooms, according to tomato experts Craig LeHoullier and Carolyn Male, and generally are perceived as having better distinctive flavor. Koritko’s approach and bottom-line recommendation: Grow both.
“That first year I grew the tomatoes from those seeds, I couldn’t believe that they germinated. But I wasn’t convinced it was really my dad’s Pink Cadillacs until they matured and I saw that they really were his tomatoes. They are not round and red, but pink and big, and look like two tomatoes joined together,” Koritko said. “When I tasted it, I knew it was the real deal — real sweet and real meaty. I know my dad would be glad to see his tomatoes growing in my garden. I feel the connection; I feel like I’m the keeper of the seed and I hope that my own son Michael or daughter Julie wants to keep that seed going and keep the past connected with the future.”
Koritko eats most of his tomatoes fresh, consuming many tomato sandwiches in season. But he does make a salsa when he has a bumper crop of ripe fruit and makes fried green tomatoes when the weather doesn’t cooperate with enough sunny days.
“This is a fried green tomato kind of year,” he said. “I plan to pick some and wrap them in newspaper and put them in the cellar to see how long I can keep them, which is what my mom did. We used to have some until November, though the taste wasn’t the same. Just be sure not to refrigerate tomatoes. That will make them pulpy.”