Gardening with a plump taste of history: 'Tomato Lady' grows heirlooms prized for flavor
By Janet Rausa Fuller
Sunday, August 27, 2006
The Tomato Lady wears gray jean shorts, black sandals, a broad white visor and a T-shirt from the Salvation Army. Her underarm hair peeks out from her cutoff sleeves ("Pain in the ass," she says of shaving).
The sweet sound of jazz — Wynton Marsalis, her favorite — filters from the open windows of her wood-clad Cape Cod in Oak Lawn on this picture-perfect August morning.
Out back in her organic garden, things are less than perfect.
The Tomato Lady planted her tomato seedlings 11/2 months later than she usually does. Her gardening schedule was thrown off by a 30-hour-a-week commitment she made to spend with her wheelchair-bound granddaughter. Then, with the July heat spells, the blossoms fell off the plants.
"I would've had tomatoes by now," she says, standing amid waist-high plants that in better years would be 6 feet tall. "They would've been all ripe and ready to go."
But she's not complaining. She will still have a bumper crop, only closer to fall.
"You have to look at it philosophically. There's always next year," she says.
More varieties than Heinz
The Tomato Lady's real name is Mary Agnes Nehmzow. People have called her Aggie since fifth grade. Since 1999, when she started growing heirloom tomatoes, friends and chefs have called her the Tomato Lady.
Nehmzow, who is 64, could just as well be called Mother Earth.
She planted her first garden at age 10, when she was living with her divorced father at a relative's two-flat in Summit. She grew carrots, lettuce and marigolds from seeds she bought at a dime store.
How does her garden grow these days? It's a 60-by-145-foot operation with a portable greenhouse and cedar trellises she built with her late husband, Cliff. She grows from seeds, and she composts extra plants and trimmings. Her garden sustains itself.
She grows sweet peas, raspberries, blackberries, sage and other herbs, grape vines, crabapple trees. But her signature crop is tomatoes — 110 heirloom varieties this year, she says.
Taste over trendiness
Heirlooms are prized for their full flavors and unique shapes and colors, the polar opposite of hybrid tomatoes bred for uniformity, size and shelf life. Heirlooms are at their peak right now at farmers' markets and are all the rage with chefs and food lovers. They have poetic names — Emerald Evergreen, Principe Borghese, Tigerella.
But Nehmzow doesn't grow heirlooms to be trendy or to make money, though she has supplied produce to restaurants such as Timo, Ina's and Courtright's in Willow Springs.
"Taste is the big thing, and the diversification of our seed bank. That's why people should grow 'em," said Nehmzow, who gives talks at libraries, garden clubs and the like. "If people stop growing these varieties, then the seed companies won't handle 'em. We could end up with another potato famine."
"When you meet someone like her, how can you not support her?" said chef John Bubala of Timo, an occasional recipient of her tomatoes and raspberries. "It's a lost art."
Nehmzow's grandparents were "peasant stock" from Croatia and Dalmatia. She remembers the blue-collar Summit neighborhood of her youth as a patchwork of ethnicities — Mexican, Italian, Slovenian, Irish — and gardens.
"They gardened according to their culture," said Nehmzow, who wants to write a book on Chicago's ethnic gardens. (She is also at work on an autobiography with the working title Common Sense Ignored).
She and Cliff, a cop, wed in 1962, when she was 20. He became the police chief in Bedford Park. She was a stay-at-home mom of three who sewed her kids' clothes.
They took cross-country road trips in the family station wagon. Nehmzow volunteered and took classes at Moraine Valley Community College in subjects like geology and environmental science.
It was then, in her 30s, that she realized she was dyslexic. "My eyes used to travel down a page rather than across it," she said. But it was a minor hurdle. She hunkered down with a pronunciation key and a thick book and, in three months, trained herself to read "like anyone else" — left to right, syllable after syllable.
In 1985, Cliff was diagnosed with lymphoma. Treatment of the cancer robbed him of his taste buds. That influenced Nehmzow's switch to organic gardening, which she believes yields more flavorful produce. She began planting heirloom tomatoes in 1999 after a road trip to the Decorah, Iowa, farm of Seed Savers Exchange, an heirloom gardening nonprofit.
Cliff died three years ago, in late July, at home. Until then, she gardened while he watched from the back porch.
Nehmzow has osteoarthritis now but says she feels worse off if she sits still.
On Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sept. 1 and 2, she will be at Osteria Via Stato, 620 N. State, talking to diners about heirloom tomatoes.
She'll also be in charge of a tomato hunt for kids at Harvest Fest in Kilbourn Park on Sept. 9. By then, she hopes to have enough tomatoes to show off.
If not, as the Tomato Lady says, there's always next year.