Also known as ‘Old Large Red’ or ‘Early Large Red’
Called by Hill Creek Farm customers, “The Tomato That Looks Like Flowers”
The Short Form: Grow this tomato!
The Slightly Longer Form: (adapted from Gary Ibsen’s Tomatofest page):
Large Red tomato seeds produce indeterminate, regular-leaf tomato plants that yield heavily ribbed, flattened, beautiful, red, tomatoes that shout out terrific, complex, well-balanced, sweet flavors with that old-fashioned acidic ‘tang’. A perfect tomato for slicing fresh into sandwiches or salads.
The Shape: In this day of Emojis where pictures are as important as words, Large Red tomato is shaped like a child’s drawing of a flower. It’s a fairly firm tomato, so the shape holds when sliced and makes a pretty pattern on a sandwich or in salads.
Although the name is generic enough to make one wince when typing in a Google search, the ribs are so distinctive that an Image search easily reveals everything the Internet knows about this tomato.
The Size: This is an almost perfect tomato from the standpoint of growing (not fussy, not overly sprawling plants) and flavor (see Gary Ibsen’s description above and William Woys Weaver’s descriptions below).
Size, however, is where things get dicey – and most of that is because of the name “Large Red”. Expectations are, that is it will be red (which it is) and large (well, er, um – and the hedging begins!).
First off, Large Red is an 18th century tomato that hasn’t really been fiddled with since. Tomatoes were a lot smaller in the 18th century than they are today, so expectations of “large” were different.
Second, this is an early tomato and like many early tomatoes, it starts off strong, but peters out over the season. You may indeed get several large (12 oz!) tomatoes in mid-July (85 days from transplant is the usual notation). However, those very same plants by September may be producing cherry tomatoes that are just fine for tossing in to a salad or the sauce pot, but when someone asked you what that cute ribbed tomato is that tastes so great and you have to say. . . ‘Large Red’ . . . it gets embarrassing.
Which is too bad because this really is a great tasting and looking tomato. But it won’t always be large.
According to William Woys Weaver in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (check Amazon or your favorite bookseller for the most recent edition – new printing is coming soon):
“When American tomatoes are discussed for the period 1815 to 1865, Early Large Red is most consistently mentioned, even though it was known earlier in France during the eighteenth century. It is not a true commercial variety in the same sense as Earliana just discussed, for it is very close to its wild Mexican counterpart. Yet where large red tomatoes were grown in the country before the universal acceptance of this vegetable, Early Large Red was indeed the most common. In fact, it was recommended for kitchen gardens in several early garden books, including George Lindley’s Guide to Orchard and Kitchen Garden (1831, 555), and appeared repeatedly in horticultural works throughout the nineteenth century. The Album Vilmorin (1869, 12) depicted it under the name tomate rouge grosse, and H. Dwight Smith of Arlington, Virginia crossed it with Feejee to create the Arlington tomato introduced by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York in 1873. Other heirloom tomatoes may be more exotic, but this one remains a classic in its plain old-fashioned way.
Early Large Red was not grown as a table fruit to be eaten raw; rather, its strength lies in its uses for cooking, in soups, ketchups, and especially in sauces. The fruit is red, the flavor excellent, but the flesh is mealy, as one would expect in a paste-type tomato. The vines are small — no longer than 4 feet — so the tomato is well adapted to small gardens. Most of the fruits are smooth, although some have light ribbing, and are about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. The skins are tough, a feature noted by Fearing Burr in 1865. Perfect fruit will contain 9 seed chambers. In humid weather the fruit is subject to cracking, and mature fruit even in dry weather will have distinct crack scars at regular intervals on the tomato. These white lines are typical on many early prehybrid tomato sorts.”
In personal correspondence, Weaver says, “As for the tomato (or tomata as it was called in the colonial period), George Washington ate this one in spite of wooden teeth, it was grown in colonial Williamsburg and Philadelphia, and Thomas Jefferson used it for sauce. This is the tomato, along with Plate de Haiti, that formed the cornerstone of late 1700s Philadelphia cuisine. ‘French Sauce’ in those days meant tomata. The flavor of this heirloom is unique, succulent.”
Before the Civil War, Large Red was one of the most commonly grown and well-documented tomato varieties in the country. This popularity was most likely because the Shakers were growing it in Hancock, MA in the 1830s and then listed it in their New Lebanon, NY seed catalog in 1843. A listing in the 19th century Shaker seed catalog generated similar excitement to a 20th century listing in the Burpee seed catalog – everyone wanted to grow what the Shakers thought was worth growing.
And, of course, because it’s all over the Internet, here’s the famous Fearing Burr quote on this tomato from his Field and Garden Vegetables of America (published in 1865): “From the time of the introduction of the tomato to its general use in this country, the Large Red was almost the only kind cultivated, or even commonly known.”
There’s a reason this tomato has been popular in the US since the 18th century. It tastes good and it grows well with little fuss. If you want an interesting looking tomato that has great tomato flavor and a fascinating history, grow this tomato!
Large Red tomatoes on the lower right.