I’ve been dying to try these for what feels like forever. They’re basically just a tiny husk tomato*, and according to James Beard, they used to be quite common in many parts of the U.S. But now, for some reason, few people seem to have heard of them and I’ve certainly never seen them at any supermarket or on any restaurant menu. Perhaps, despite the fact that they supposedly grow well even in poor soil, they don’t take well to industrial-scale cultivation or don’t hold up well over long distances. Or maybe their scarcity has something to do with the idea that some varieties are believed to be hallucinogenic, which is apparently the reason there’s a law in Louisiana that says you can only grow smooth groundcherry for ornamental use.
The feeling of “forever” is so variable. Ten consecutive hours of driving. Ten minutes waiting in line. Apparently, in time spent waiting to taste a ground cherry, forever is just over a year. I first heard about them last summer when a friend from Ohio got some in his weekly CSA share. I went looking for more information, and the descriptions I found were unbelievably tantalizing: a fruit that tastes like a cross between strawberries, pineapple, and vanilla custard. They sounded like they might be the most delicious thing ever found in nature.
I kept an eye out at the farmer’s market, but must have missed their window last summer, or maybe no one was growing them for sale yet. Then, in February when Brian went to Egypt, he had something that fit the description perfectly, as improbable a place as that seemed to find an almost-completely unknown husk tomato cultivar. They wouldn’t have survived the trip, even if he’d been able to smuggle them past customs, so I waited and waited for summer which never comes fast enough in Michigan anyways. And for most of this year, too, I searched the farmer’s market in vain. I started to feel like they were some mythical creature, and I was Molly Grue.
But then this weekend, I spotted a handful of pint baskets full of what looked like the tiniest tomatillos I’d ever seen. At first, Brian thought I was pointing at the actual tomatillos, slicing-tomato-sized on the shelf below, as if my desperation had made me delusional. But no, there they were.
Are they the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted? Okay, probably not. But I’m not disappointed; they’re pretty great. The tiny seeds and mild acidity are definitely reminiscent of strawberry or kiwi, but with this rich perfume that is a little like vanilla but also entirely its own thing.
You can tell from the picture that some of them are a little green, which apparently means they’re not quite ripe, and just like unripe tomatoes, those ones had a bit of crunch and bitterness. But left at room temperature, preferably with their husks on, they get sweeter and more golden every day.
A recipe coming soon, not that you need one if you do manage to get your hands on some. I totally agree with with James Beard: “When eaten raw [ground-cherries] are refreshingly sweet and rich. It is mystifying to me that they are not more prized.” (from Cooking Books)
*which aren’t technically tomatoes, someone just pointed out to me. Husk tomatoes are in the same family, but a different genus than other tomatoes. And all of them related to nightshade, and someday I’ll write something about why so many people used to think tomatoes were poisonous.