11/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Tomato, the Banker, and the Alderman

Several years ago, a local real estate developer approached Chicago political legend Leon Despres and asked to honor him by naming a building after him. Worried about the possible fallout should problems crop up in the building, the former alderman and civil rights activist politely declined. But when a South Side neighbor, Ron Grzywinski, proposed to name a new tomato he was developing after him, that struck Despres as exactly the kind of recognition he wanted in his retirement.

Grzywinski, who said he "coaxed" the Despres Tomato out of the Pink Brandywine heirloom, is not the usual tomato breeder except in his obvious fondness for seed catalogs and tomato genealogy. He actually spends much of his life on and off airplanes, overseeing the now far-flung operation of the organization he co-founded and currently chairs, ShoreBank.

Now more than three decades old, ShoreBank is an internationally-recognized pioneer in community development and socially responsible investing. The bank is widely credited with helping to establish the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, whose founder, Mohammed Younis, won the 2006 Nobel Peace prize.

But in his own modest side yard, Grzywinski, who is regarded as one of the earliest exponents of the now almost conventional strategy of "doing well by doing good," takes the ShoreBank approach to a new level. Even in the blazing summer sun, this banker by day and gardener by night is practicing a variation of so-called "triple bottom line" investing.

The home of the Despres Tomato is a garden only partially for Grzywinski's personal benefit. It's also for his neighbors in the surrounding community, to whom he grants unrestricted harvesting rights.

Hyde Park now has two farmers' markets, including one recently opened at the Experimental Station on 61st Street. However, Grzywinski's next door neighbor, children's book author Beth Fama, says she never needs to go. An avid cook, she can harvest everything she wants, anytime she wants, from Grzywinski's 600 square foot garden, which borders her house in Chicago's Kenwood community. His neighbor to the north relies on Grzywinski's chard.

Unlike at ShoreBank, however, the payback is purely personal. Grzywinski invests a full Sunday throughout the summer and fall and his neighbors' harvest as much as they want. Only when he leaves town are neighbors permitted to contribute to the upkeep of Grzywinski's garden, and then only to water.

"If people tried to help, I would try to politely run them out," Grzywinski sheepishly admits. "It's kind of a communal garden, but the only part of the communal part is that people pick it. But I grow it."

Grzywinski's sole request, posted on a sign hanging from the Despres tomato plant: Don't pick these or he won't be able to harvest the seeds. He has already promised some to Leon Despres' grandson, a chef, who lives with the former alderman. That's in addition to the periodic tomato deliveries that Grzywinski's wife Audrey makes to Despres, whom she worked for in the 1960s.

But it was another independent Illinois Democrat, Victor de Grazia, who really got Grzywinski started gardening in the early 1970s when de Grazia was not busy running the political campaigns of people like Democratic Governor Dan Walker, or challenging the reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley. When Grzywinski's wife, who actually started the garden, turned over responsibility to him after the birth of their first child, de Grazia - himself a blend of gardener, musician, gourmet cook, and politician - took Grzywinski "under his wing."

Since then, Grzywinski has planted more than 65 different tomato varieties. The Brandywine, from which the Despres tomato was grown, is the only one he has planted year after year. The Despres, grown from the seeds of a tomato Grzywinski found particularly sweet several years ago, remains the only tomato he has taken from seed.

Superior flavor can exact a high price on the gardener and the Despres tomato has not been without its challenges. But its characteristic thin skin and fragility, which are common among Brandywines, according to Grzywinski, are probably not a reflection of the eponymous 100-year-old alderman who was known throughout his career for his tenacity.

Grzywinski's garden, which includes more than half a dozen pepper varieties, eggplants, beans, leafy greens, onions, and broccoli, as well as a full herb garden, is practically a year-round affair. Because of their short growing seasons, Grzywinski plants several vegetables, such as spinach and arugula, twice each summer. His biggest personal harvest is for his end-of-summer employee bash, which he has held since the 1980s. Grzywinski cooks everything himself, generally six or seven vegetables, as well as fish or meat.

Only after he harvests the kale and brussels sprouts, which he says do well with a little bit of frost, does Grzywinski take his annual break. But it's not much of a break. Even during the winter, Grzywinski has his sights on the garden. The first seed catalogs start to arrive in December - one of his favorites is Seeds from Italy - so that he can, as he says, pretend that spring is coming.

By the end of February, when the early-bird deals expire, he has locked in the following year's crop. By then Grzywinski is already well into his planting season, in his basement under lights, when most Chicagoans are deeply lamenting the grip of winter.

A Banking Gardener's Favorite Cookbooks

Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers
The Cafe Cookbook: Italian Recipes from London's River Cafe by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers
New York Times International Cookbookby Craig Claiborne
The Silver Spoon by Phaidon Press
Anything by Mark Bittman