Garden musings: tomato tips and will the real tomato please stand up?


"Real" tomatoes

If you have been to a farmers’ market recently and purchased some tomatoes, you know what a real tomato tastes like. With their greenhouses, hoop houses and other tricks local farmers have been harvesting tomatoes for weeks now.

As the English Gardener will attest, July is when home gardeners see the first blush of red on their ripening fruit. For me, tasting the first tomatoes of the season always stirs childhood memories of  backyard gardens and roadside farm stands. 

It seems my parents preferred to grow only red things in our backyard garden; mom had her roses and dad had his strawberries and tomatoes. I think he grew the strawberries as a sacrificial crop to keep the birds away from the tomatoes; we'd hardly ever find an unpecked strawberry but his tomatoes were always perfect. It helped that we picked off all the hornworm caterpillars that the robins missed. 


Our garden tomatoes were meant for our table or as trades for whatever the neighbors happened to be harvesting. Some years the whole neighborhood would over plant tomatoes and when they all started ripening there'd be no takers for ours and so the surplus was destined for canning. Since the parents thought it was just as easy to can a few hundred tomatoes as it was a few dozen we'd head down to what is now a sub-division in Calumet City, and what was then farmland, and pick tomatoes, bushels of them.

This was back in the 1950s'. You remember the fifties, don't you? Not only did Dinah Shore rule the earth (thank you Buddy Hacket!) but no home in my neighborhood had air conditioning. The hottest days of the year is the worst time to can tomatoes. Our kitchen would get so hot a passerby might see actual heat waves rising from the open doors and windows. And no, it wasn't that dry desert heat; this was a heavy, wet heat due to the steamy clouds rising from the simmering tomatoes and the Ball jars getting their boiling water-bath. I'm not sure how our wallpaper made it through these times. 


These "canned" tomatoes are from a farmers' market

Since canning preserves flavor and mom ended up canning dozens and dozens of jars, the upside was when we ran out of our garden fresh we could still satisfy our tomato cravings all the way up to (and sometimes beyond) the next harvest/canning/steam bath cycle. 

Flash forward 50 years. On any day of the year, summer or winter, go to the local grocery store and in the produce department you'll find inexpensive, bright red, fresh looking tomatoes. Thanks to free trade and long transportation links you'd think it was (tomato) heaven on earth. Well, not quite. Close your eyes, take a bite of that tomato and what do you taste? Probably something akin to a slightly sweet piece of wet cardboard. This isn't the tomato of my childhood.

For big commercial growers, the perfect tomato has been engineered to do 3 things; to be of a consistent size, to mature at the same time; and to ripen evenly. The size allows easy handling during picking and transportation (and gives the grocer's the option to sell them by the piece instead of the pound); maturing at the same time allows them to be picked all at once; and since tomatoes picked early usually ripen unevenly, even ripening. 


Most commercially grown tomatoes are picked while they are still green, the "mature green" stage in the parlance, meaning mature enough to continue ripening (instead of rotting) but hard enough to survive handling and travel. This allows the green tomato to ripen during transit to the grocery and if their origin is California it's a 1,300 mile trip. If they haven't ripened by the time they reach the local distributor they're gassed with ethylene which hurries the process along. The downside to all this - no it's not the ethylene - is the gene that controls ripening and color also controls flavor: looks great, tastes bland. 

Yes, Big Ag somehow missed this obvious requirement (palm slap to forehead) but then consumers just ate it up anyway. Scientists are currently working on a factory tomato that also incorporates superior taste and texture. Let's all hope they find a solution that involves more breeding husbandry and less transfer of genetic material from another species like, oh, I don't know, a jellyfish. (although a glow-in-the-dark tomato would be easy to locate during a blackout). It all comes down to the variety and/or cultivar. 


These grape tomatoes, like all other pictures in this article, are "real" from local  farmers

Buying Tips
If you're not growing your own nor going, literally, far afield to pick your own, use these tips for buying the freshest, tastiest tomato possible: 

* You can determine the intensity of a tomato's taste by smelling it near the stem. The more it smells like tomato the more it'll taste like tomato. If it smells like nothing, well, you get it. 

The exception to this rule are those premium priced tomatoes sold on-the-vine (or TOVs). If you sniff a cluster on its vine you'll most likely be smelling the vine itself which always smells like a tomato. These TOVs may have been grown locally (and year round)  in hot houses and may technically be ripened on the vine (a great marketing strategy) but only taste marginally better. 

* Aside from it's lack of smell, you can identify a tasteless, mealy, factory grown tomato by looking at its coloration. Factory tomatoes have an consistent coloration likes it's been dipped in paint whereas a non-factory will have a slight to prevalent diffusion of color near the stem. This is called "green shoulder". Since the stem area is the last part of the tomato to ripen it's the toughest part of the fruit and explains why you see farm stand tomatoes displayed bottoms-up. 

* Once you've procured your tomato never put it in the fridge. It's a tropical fruit and anything under 50 degrees will make it taste mealy. Even if you've only used half, wrap the leftover in plastic and leave it on the counter. It'll last a few days although you may have to discard a thin slice of the cut end before using. 

Acceptable year-round workarounds include those not too tomatoey but at least sweet grape tomatoes, sun-dried with their concentrated flavor and of course canned. No I don't can my tomatoes (although my farmer does. But that's another story).  While summer's bounty lasts, create your own fresh memories with your garden or farmer's market tomato.



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