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Originally published June 4, 2011 at 7:01 PM | Page modified June 6, 2011 at 11:07 AM

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Taste

Everett man obsessed with better tomatoes and potatoes

The name of Tom Wagner is surprisingly little-known in the broader food-loving community. To those in the know, though, he's a legend:

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THE TATER-MATER man's most famous creation has been the centerpiece of salads at the nation's top restaurants, a clue on Jeopardy, a bright flash of contrasting color on horticultural posters.

"An old heirloom variety," one seed catalog says about the gorgeous, tangy Green Zebra tomato. "Origin: Unknown," says another.

Actually, its originator was Tom Wagner of Everett, a man obsessed with producing ever-better varieties of tomatoes ("maters") and potatoes ("taters"), whose bookcase holds binders with some 50 years of careful notes on hybridization and disease resistance, whose bathtub is full of potatoes, who has sneaked a few breeding experiments past his wife onto the extended testing ground of their back balcony. (Even after nearly four decades of marriage, he says, "She still kind of hates me doing this. This is like a mistress to her.")

Wagner's name is surprisingly little-known in the broader food-loving community. To those in the know, though, he's a legend: On one random day's check, the site where he sells his seeds (http://www.newworldcrops.com/wp/) was being browsed by a Dane living in Poland, by an American stockpiling his own end-of-the-world seed bank and by 100-plus others. And at age 65, Wagner hasn't slowed down. "To me," he says, "what I'm doing is like a preacher man who gets a calling and serves the Lord."

Wagner's current pet project is developing a potato derived from Peruvian breeds that naturally grow at high altitudes. Here, close to sea level, he hopes to shape them into a powerhouse of convenience that can be cooked quickly without losing nutrients. He pulls a golfball-size cross out to test on one recent morning, admiring the buttercup-yellow interior, assessing its iron and carotenoid content. After one minute and 40 seconds in the microwave, it's fork-ready, rich-tasting, satisfying with only a scattering of salt. It's close to his goal. But not quite there.

With Wagner, is it ever?

He's created "so many treasures," says Amy Goldman, author of "The Heirloom Tomato" and chairwoman of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, a national organization that maintains and shares thousands of heirloom seeds. "He's one of the most prolific breeders of potatoes and tomatoes who has ever lived, and his tomatoes are mind-expanding."

Wagner's work began early, with his childhood on a Kansas farm where his large, extended family depended for food on what they could grow, butcher, can or freeze.

From the age of 3, "I was interested in everything. I was breeding 50 different kinds of chickens," he said. Hospitalized for an operation at 12, he passed the time by reading the field notes of plant-breeding pioneer Luther Burbank.

Wagner majored in botany, anthropology and geology at the University of Kansas, doing the research for his degree on potatoes ("Got an A on it, obviously"). He was a potato buyer for Frito-Lay. He consulted for commercial growers and was certified as a substitute teacher.

The quest for the Green Zebra, with its characteristic stripes, began in the 1950s with Wagner's disappointment in a big green Kansas tomato that cracked and bruised practically before it reached the kitchen. He set out to retain the color and eliminate the flaws. It took years and digressions and cross after cross, but he finally wound up with the strikingly striped final version, beautiful on the outside, piquant within.

"Eureka!"

The Zebra's fame spread in part due to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who listed it as one of her favorites. Wagner has other notables, says Goldman, like the elongated, zigzagged Casady's Folly, or the globe-shaped Green Grape. But he's never attempted to license them. Wagner doesn't make a dime from sales of his varieties unless they're ordered through his own tiny company, and other seed-growers have been able to work with them.

"He's just been incredibly generous . . . allowing interested gardeners and amateurs to take these and run with them," Goldman says. "I'm just truly grateful to him for leaving these in the public domain."

It's sheer irony that when Wagner's wife transferred jobs, he was transplanted here to a wet climate that's notoriously unfriendly to tomato growers. Perhaps it's to our advantage. One of his latest projects, the Skykomish tomato, shows encouraging resistance to the late blight that plagues growers in wet weather.

Those are hardly the only projects on his mind. Catching weak rays of sunlight on his doorstep earlier this year, a plastic tray contained a different tomato hybrid in each of its 128 slots, some unusually tall, some sporting purple stems or narrow leaves. Collaborating with local farmers and greenhouse owners, and with old connections in California, he transplants his starts and watches trial crops come to fruition.

He's also been looking for ways to share his knowledge with younger generations. He sees so much of modern plant breeding as the domain of technology, constricted by proprietary information and genetic modification and seeds that can't be propagated for public use. For himself, he'd rather leave shared knowledge and "a legacy of helping each other."

Already, he says, "I feel good that I'm part of the food chain." He's glad his creations seem to have a permanent place in the public's hearts — and on their plates.

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle food writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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