Give Tomatoes a Chance

On July 2, The Washington Post (business section) had yet another article on the latest salmonella scare. Is it tomato? Or is something else? The FDA still does not know. Not a great confidence builder in the FDA or our industrial food system now, is it? The article contained a photograph captioned “Tomatoes are inspected at West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, Fla., last month.” The article – and illustrating photo – may be found here. I had to look really close at that photo, as I first wondered, “why are they using a picture of apples in an article about tomatoes?” Sadly, they ARE tomatoes (if you look close you can see), but they are green and they look rock-hard. What’s the story here?

In an industrial food system, when produce is shipped hundred or even thousands of miles, it must be picked before it is ripe to survive the transit time (if I remember recent readings, the average supermarket produce travels over 1,500 miles). Obviously based on the picture, tomatoes are picked a LONG time before they are ripe! Industry guidelines recommend that tomatoes destined for shipping be harvested green, a stage at which they more impervious to being sorted mechanically, packaged and transported over great distance. The bruises don’t show then because the tomatoes are so hard. How do they ripen then? They don’t! They are made to turn red by going through a “ripening” room where they are exposed to ethylene gas. Ethylene does not make the tomatoes ripen (i.e. does not cause the formation of more sugars and the development of good flavors) it simply changes their color from green to red – making them look ripe. So if you ever wondered why supermarket tomatoes don’t taste that good… that’s why.

But you don’t have to settle for things that look like tomatoes but sure don’t taste like one. For tomatoes that taste like tomatoes:

1. Buy when they are in season; in the Northern Piedmont, tomato season really starts in July and continues through October. With the help of a hoop house and careful selection of cultivars, a farmer can bring some good tasting tomatoes to market in May – extending the fresh season to 6 months (those early tomatoes will be commensurately more expensive as they take more care and more money to grow).

2. Go for local tomatoes that have traveled minimum distance and have had greater chance of being picked ripe. Some supermarkets are carrying local produce, and to ensure this continues, you should let the manager know you appreciate that. If they don’t carry local produce, ask that they do. Of course, one has to make sure that their definition of “local” match yours: I remember a supermarket in Northern Virginia touting their “local” produce from New Jersey! If you are not growing tomatoes yourself, the best place for really local and really fresh tomatoes is at a producer-only farmers market.

What do you do the rest of the year when tomatoes are not in season? You don’t eat them fresh. If you eat them at all, you eat them dry, canned or even frozen. You buy extra in September when they are abundant and you freeze them: they’ll be fine for sauce and soup. Or you learn to can them, it really is not difficult; it’s not even that time consuming if you make it a fun family or group of friend project – and it’s very satisfying. It will be the best tomato sauce you ever had too…

In our household, a perfectly vine-ripen tomato is a much awaited event. One cannot understand the incredible pleasure of a simple tomato sandwich, or a tomato and mozzarella salad unless using fully ripe flavorful tomatoes. Before I had a large garden, I refused to buy them until I could have “dirt-grown” tomatoes from my area. Now that I grow a few of them, the plants are carefully watched for the first fruit to turn red (or pink or orange depending on the cultivar). They are eaten gleefully as we relish their juicy perfection, a wonderful mixture of sweetness and tartness, their sheer tomatoness: a delight we’ve not had in 6 months. A taste we can look forward to for the next few months, until frost or so. And then that’s it, until next summer again. In the meantime, there’ll be many other vegetables to enjoy at their best.

Give tomatoes a chance. Don’t settle for third or fourth rate gassed tomatoes. Allow yourself to take part in (and to become part of) the cycle of the seasons.

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