Chomp into a fresh heirloom tomato off the vine and then take a swig of canned tomato juice and try to figure out what went wrong.
Jim Hudson discovered the answer: tomatoes are treated like vegetables. They shouldn’t be.
The wonderfully varied, rich flavors and heady aromas of ripe heirloom tomatoes say more of grapes than carrots. The best way to capture the magic of this pulpy summer fruit in a bottle, Hudson reasoned, was to make it like wine: pick the tomatoes only when they were ripe, process them on-site and blend them to create remarkable flavors.
“Each variety of heirloom tomato is unique,” said Hudson, who founded Maryland, Eastern Shore-based Luke’s Premier Foods to craft his artisan juices. “Some are sweeter and some more acidic, while others possess great aromas. After attending several wine schools, I wondered what would happen if I combined specific heirloom tomatoes to create a signature juice blend, similar to how gourmet wines are fashioned. I found that blended juices almost always taste better than those made from a single variety.”
Hudson may have been right, and here’s his proof: one of Luke’s juices is a finalist in what he calls the “Oscars” of the food industry: the 2013 Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation (sofi) Awards, in the Cold Beverage Category.
“To be honored with a sofi Award nomination means the product truly stands out above the rest,” said Specialty Food Association President Ann Daw.
Winners are announced at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City on July 1.
“We are thrilled our Bloody Delicious Mary Mix™ made it to the finals,” said Hudson, who named Luke’s after his grandson of the same name, who as a child routinely plundered Hudson’s heirloom tomato garden. “Our customers tell us these are the first juices that taste like real fresh-picked tomatoes, and we are delighted that sofi judges agree.”
Another of Luke’s products, its crisp, invigorating Tomato Nectar™, is unique in the market, according to Hudson. Inspired by chefs who spend four to six hours straining ground tomatoes to make clear, sweet tomato water, it took Hudson two years to find a way to commercially separate the fruit’s essence from the pulp, creating what he calls “the Dom Perignon of tomato juice.”
“We think Luke’s Tomato Nectar will be the next great beverage and ingredient in the specialty food industry,” said Hudson.
“Every tomato juice and Bloody Mary Mix on your grocery store shelf is made of tomato paste and water,” Hudson explained. “We use the whole tomato, which gives our juices their distinct and full flavors. We don’t need as much salt to compensate for a lack of flavor, and that means less sodium.”
Hudson experimented with different heirloom tomatoes for five years prior to launching Luke’s, at one point growing as many as 35 different varieties.
Heirlooms are pure tomato varieties that have been passed down through generations—a minimum of 40 years—without crossbreeding. Their colors vary from orange to yellow to white, from purple to ripened greens and reds. They have thin skins, making them seem unsuitable for mass production, yield less fruit per vine and are often misshapen—but their tastes are unmatched by commercial tomatoes.
Hudson started Luke’s in Iowa and moved the company to Maryland to work with the state’s tomato farmers, as well as Associate Professor Jurgen Schwarz from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), to develop a mobile heirloom tomato processing system that could be used where the fruits were picked, on-site, to create what he calls the freshest and healthiest juice in the world.
That work was supported by three grants worth a total of $270,000 from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) program, which funds projects teaming Maryland companies with University System of Maryland faculty members to develop technology-based products.
“Our processing plant is now dramatically different from any in use today,” said Hudson. “Thanks to MIPS, our work with UMES helped us test and refine our process and helped take us from start-up kitchen to commercial and we have product for sale today.”
Luke’s buys its tomatoes from Maryland farmers, aiding in the revival a once vibrant state industry.
Luke’s juices are available online at lukespremierfoods.com and at retail stores. They can also be purchased wholesale.