Tomato ‘Big Rainbow’

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Heritage Tomato ‘Big Rainbow’—multicolor skin and a light red streak inside

For beauty on the plate, few Blue Ribbon Tomatoes can surpass the heritage variety ‘Big Rainbow’. Sometimes it looks mostly yellow and sometimes it has green shoulders with a waistcoat of yellow and orange—when ripe, streaks of red appear toward the blossom end.

Try not to judge this beefsteak by its flat, lumpy exterior. Slicing into it reveals wisps and whorls of red and orange streaked through the yellow meat—ah, the prize inside. ‘Big Rainbow’ is a classic eating tomato: juicy and sweet with fruity overtones and a low-acid bite.

We like to call this a New American Hybrid because it came out of Minnesota during the 1980s, grown by the families in and around Polk County. One woman, Dorothy Beiswenger, had the foresight to register it with Seed Savers Exchange and blessed its name. ‘Big Rainbow’s’ history is unclear as far as heritage goes; no one knows much about its early days, its ethnic background, or its parents. What we do know is that it became a hit.

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A red streak on the bottom signals ripeness

THE NUANCES OF HERITAGE


As with all heritage Tomatoes, be prepared to enjoy its charms. Long vines easily surpass seven feet, so this variety overflows the standard Tomato cage. It’s common to see one- and two-pounders (with reports of three-pounders), so ‘Big Rainbow’ definitely needs support with ties to avoid marring or drops. Good air circulation is required to keep off leaf spots so give it plenty of space.

Strip leaves about a foot above the soil of mature plants to keep their knees clean. Protect the roots and discourage pests with mulch. For families with children, ‘Big Rainbow’ presents an opportunity for a teaching moment about heirlooms and patience: these fruits take 85 to 95 days to ripen. Young Tomato fans will soon discover that the sweet reward is worth the wait.

To intensify the flavor, enthusiasts back the water off when the Tomatoes start to ripen on the vine. Watering moderately concentrates the tasty flavors inside the fruit, which explains why dense Tomato paste tastes stronger than the juice.

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Sweet, low-acid, and fruity—as close to eating a peach as a Tomato can get

THE EATING TOMATO


There are many types of Tomatoes—sauce, salad, sandwich, slicer—but the most demanding kind is the eating Tomato. This label is reserved only for those few cultivars that can be served brazenly front and center: sliced thick and dabbed with mayonnaise and a little fresh-ground pepper or layered with fresh mozzarella and topped with basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil—always al fresco and never cooked. Of course, some prefer to go old school and eat ‘Big Rainbow’ like an apple, dipping it in sea salt between bites. Among New York chefs the cultivar is known to make “a damn good Bloody Mary.”

Low-acid is only part of the ‘Big Rainbow’ flavor story. Acids and sugars are well-balanced with additional fruity notes thrown in for a full, rich taste you don’t get from commercial varieties. Some say it’s as close to eating a peach as a Tomato can get.

Like snow angels and dandelion fluff, an heirloom Tomato will not keep for long—so if you pick it when it’s ripe, eat it when it’s ripe. Fruits that are picked when green will last a little longer, but not as long as grocery store Tomatoes. ‘Big Rainbow’ is practical in this regard—the plant is a heavy producer so it’s ok to pick some fruits just as they begin to ripen.

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Saved out of Northern Minnesota in 1983, it became widely available in the 90s

EDIBLE BEAUTY


We did not realize it at the time, but ‘Big Rainbow’ was part of the beginning of today’s ornamental edible movement. Though it wasn’t used to decorate the vegetable garden back then it was undeniably whimsical on the dinner plate, a sight you didn’t expect to see. It became—and still is—an intriguing gateway into that larger, deeper gene pool of open-pollinated cultivars.

‘Big Rainbow’ is just one of thousands of examples saved and promoted by the Seed Savers Exchange. This group has done a wonderful job of harnessing and organizing the diversity found in our backyard gardens. They curate ethnic cultivars we would have otherwise lost—both flower and vegetable—and they look for natural innovations that occur on the wind in today’s backyards. If you want to drop down the rabbit hole of history and horticulture, Seed Savers is a good place to begin the journey.

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A thick, meaty core with a signature red streak makes it a centerpiece on the plate