Every year I am asked to name my favorite tomato. My honest response — I don’t have one; I enjoy variety. Yet I think it’s fair to say that of all the “big reds” (as I call them), ‘Abraham Lincoln’ consistently ranks at the top. It is one of those heirloom varieties that faithfully produces huge crops of extra large, meaty fruit, and resists foliage diseases, making it ideal for organic growers like me. On top of that, it has a real summery tomato flavor that is largely missing in modern hybrids. I also like the fact that it produces heavily right up to the first killing frost and keeps me in pre-ripened green tomatoes for jams and chutneys all the way to Christmas. And on a sultry August day, there is nothing like a chilled glass of white wine and a light bruschetta made with fresh ‘Abraham Lincoln’ tomatoes.
‘Abraham Lincoln’ was introduced in 1923 by the W. H. Buckbee seed company of Rockford, Ill., which named the tomato in honor of the state’s favorite son. It was released without much fanfare, but over the years it has proved itself to be one of the great tomato classics that happily survived the big shift to hybrids during the 1940s. After the demise of the Buckbee firm, the tomato was continued by R. H. Shumway of Randolph, Wis.
Looking back on the tomato situation in the 1920s, there were a lot of other big reds competing for culinary attention: ‘John Baer,’ ‘Bonny Best,’ ‘Landreth’ and ‘Henderson’s Winsall’ (developed in 1924 in response to ‘Abraham Lincoln’), yet most of those are selections of one another and when placed side by side, it’s pretty difficult to tell them apart. ‘Abraham Lincoln’ stands out, perhaps because of its dark red color and bronzy-green leaves. Buckbee claimed that the average fruit weighed about a pound; I would say it’s closer to 8 ounces, though some fruits occasionally do get that large. You tend to get smaller fruits if you allow them to develop in clusters from six to nine tomatoes, and larger specimens if you pull off the small ones.
Today, there are two strains of ‘Abraham Lincoln.’ The original 1923 strain is considered a late-season tomato, maturing in 87 to 90 days. Because I plant tomatoes outdoors in mid-April, this means I will have harvest-ready tomatoes by mid-July or early August at the latest. Another strain of ‘Abraham Lincoln,’ which is offered by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, was introduced around 1975 as a more mid-season tomato that matures about two weeks earlier. This strain does not have the distinctive bronzy green leaves of the original, but it is identical in all other respects, even the same flavorful dark red fruit.
Rather than oblate (a flattened sphere) in shape like common beefsteak tomatoes, ‘Abraham Lincoln’ is round, solid and firm, which is why it’s such a good slicer. And unlike some heirlooms, ‘Abe Lincoln’ can tolerate rainy weather without splitting. In my garden, where I have a problem with tiny ants, splitting is an important issue because as soon as cracks develop on any of my tomatoes, the ants appear and the invaded fruit is quickly ruined. Last year, ‘Abe Lincoln’ won the war against the ants, so I didn’t have to resort to any remedial treatments (a real plus for organic gardeners).