photograph by Tim Robison

Substantial and generous, one German Johnson can grow to two pounds, plenty large enough to sit like a royal orb in a lightly cupped hand. Always handsome, but not so perfect as to raise suspicions of factory farming, these sturdy tomatoes are perfectly sized for a warm windowsill. But they won’t stay there for long.

As the name implies, German Johnsons are a member of the German family of tomatoes, which hail not from Germany but from Mennonite farms in the South. They flourish in North Carolina’s summertime heat and humidity, which is why we’ve claimed them as our own native fruit for generations. As an heirloom variety, they’ve been around for at least 50 years, and no one wastes 50 years on a so-so tomato.

Pinkish-red, reliable, and fetching, they have smooth skin that resists the pesky cracking and splitting that other heirloom varieties suffer. They’re great slicers, too. Center-cut slabs of a German Johnson can touch all four edges of a piece of white bread at once and are often the exact diameter of a burger bun. Meaty, never mealy, they don’t waterlog bread with too many gloppy seeds — a phenomenon that some seed catalogs describe as “firm gel pockets.” That description doesn’t do justice to the poetry of a German Johnson’s restraint: They hold together, as all of us must, no matter what.

If tomato nostalgia had only one taste, it would be a July-ripe German Johnson.

Creamy and juicy, with low acidity, their flavor rings out with a pleasant tang. Now, let’s be honest here: Ideal tomato flavor is subjective, with each of us having a target zone for acidity, sweetness, and tartness. Still, there is an unquantifiable (but undeniable) benchmark of expectation that a tomato ought to taste like the tomato we deserve — the real deal. And on that scale, a German Johnson sets the standard. They are the tomatoes we remember, the ones we pine for in all the seasons between tomato seasons. If homegrown tomato nostalgia had only one taste, it would be a July-ripe German Johnson, warm from the vine in the family garden, a memory from way back, or maybe just last year.

A backyard garden is a German Johnson’s purview and sweet spot. We might find bushels and baskets of them at our local farmers market or roadside stand, but the only sure way to get homegrown tomatoes is to grow them yourself. The good news is that German Johnsons can turn almost any North Carolinian into a gardener. (Just like fixing a great tomato sandwich can turn anyone into an expert cook.) They are low-hanging fruit, so to speak, for gardeners who want an heirloom tomato that’s well-suited to the Carolina climate. Robust from the moment they sprout in the spring, they’re heavy bloomers, too. The fruit hangs in there, whether the day is a scorcher or a soupy mess. And if you get a late start on planting, well, these tomatoes will adjust and carry on.

How many German Johnsons does it take to make a crop? As many as you’ve got. Even one ’mater-sammich-worthy specimen can make us feel like a rightful gardener. But it’s nice to get enough to share with neighbors. Just ask anyone who’s received a paper sack of freshly picked German Johnsons. They’ll tell you, as they dash to the mayonnaise and bread: The heart skips a beat. And if you ask anyone who has given that paper sack of their homegrown best, they’ll tell you: They’re so proud, they can taste it.

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Sheri Castle hails from Watauga County, but came down off the mountain to go to Carolina and now lives in Fearrington Village. She is a writer, recipe developer, cooking teacher, and popular public speaker. She is fueled by mountains, excellent bourbon, farmers’ markets, and searching for the right word. Sheri believes that stories happen only to those who can tell them. Check her out at shericastle.com.

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