Until recently, I didn’t even know there was a difference. And depending on your views about plant breeding and agribusiness, you might not see or even care about the difference. I do.
How could I not? I grew up in rural central Florida. I used to live next to a tomato farm. Over the course of 34 years, I’ve devoured hundreds if not thousands of tomatoes. Each and everyone of those lovely love apples, I assumed, was as nature intended. That's where I was wrong.
With little exception, every tomato you and I have ever eaten was manipulated by man. From seed to picked fruit, the tomato is worked over at every stage of its development. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with the tomatoes that have accompanied my salads and made sauce for my pizzas. It’s just a little unnerving to think that I have never eaten a perfectly natural tomato.
For all I know, the tomato -- the true tomato -- doesn’t exist any more. And if it did, I doubt that I’d know it if I saw it.
Arthur Allen, author of Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, said in all likelihood the wild tomato would be a weird and ugly thing, a far cry from the pretty red orb we know and love.
His new book tells the story of how that ugly South American jungle fruit grew into a hundred million dollar business, an Italian icon and a project for the Chinese military.
Meeting over lunch at Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, Arthur said that for years he’s had an interest an in agribusiness and the things that we eat, which led him to research and write Ripe.
His story of the tomato is a story of industry. The majority of tomatoes, as we know them today, were bred to be harvested by machine, capable of a long shelf-life and to a lesser extent, palatable to the consumer -- in that order (which helps explain the common lament about the modern tomato's lack of flavor). However in Florida, taste falls even farther by the wayside, as growers focus on producing large, firm tomatoes for their fast food clients, who are looking for tomatoes that can be sliced uniformly, over and over again. Despite the hardiness of the Florida tomatoes, most of them are still picked by hand; a back-breaking task most often carried out by immigrants.
As Arthur notes in the book, “Tomatoes, a wholesome food with clear nutritional benefits, have been bred to taste plain, while food chemists and the companies they work for have gussied up their corn-syrup-based snacks with savory essences culled from nature.”
Rather than serving as a totem of modern agribusiness, Arthur said the tomato has been changing since the first genetic accident occurred centuries ago. In fact, the tomato’s ability to be so easily manipulated has resulted in the wide variety of tomatoes available today. It’s also kept the cost down and allowed us to have this seasonal fruit all year long.
Tomato breeders have bred the tomato to have a firmer skin to make it more resistant to bruising and rot. The color, flavor, seed content, density and shelf-life are all the result of breeding. The Brandywines, Green Zebras and Sun Golds are all a product of breeding. As truffle hunters still use dogs and pigs to find fists of fungus in the French countryside, which are sold at premium prices, tomato breeders have built a fruit they can harvest by the ton and sell to consumers cheaply and still clear a profit (and an even greater profit if they can add an organic sticker).
“Today’s tomato -- whether the strangely crunchy specimens on your fast-food burger, sliced from a tomato picked green in southern Florida, the yellowish purple heirloom sold at the farmer’s market, or the paste on the slice at the corner pizza shop -- is the product of countless human hands,” Arthur wrote in Ripe.
But for all that effort, the vast majority of tomatoes grown here and elsewhere end up crushed and cooked down into paste for salsa, ketchup and the very pizza sauce Arthur and I were likely enjoying on our lunch.
In the book, Arthur also explores the spiritual home of the tomato, Italy (again, the actual home was probably a Peruvian jungle). Although the tomato is a cultural icon and a staple of the nation’s cuisine, its place in the Italian kitchen dates back only to the mid-nineteenth century. To be sure, the tomato is a major crop and export for Italy, but the country also imports quite a bit of Chinese tomato paste.
Oh, and the cans of pricey San Marzano tomatoes you’re buying at the grocery store? They’re probably a Roma or similar plum-type tomato. Disease likely wiped out Italy’s San Marzanos 40 years ago.
So the San Marzanos are fake and most of the tomatoes at the grocery store weren’t grown to taste great, just easily harvested. What do we do with this information?
Enjoy your tomatoes. If nothing else, Ripe can help you make better decisions about the tomatoes and tomato products you buy and consume. Why spend the money on cans of San Marzanos when Hunt’s or Heinz will do? If you long for the flavorful tomatoes of your youth, buy or grow smaller tomatoes, like cherry and grape varieties.
Arthur is even an advocate of year-round tomatoes, though he prefers the greenhouse variety over tomatoes that are picked green and then sprayed with ethylene to ripen. And aside from your home garden, the best quality tomatoes you can find tomatoes are at the farmer’s market.
Not because they’re the real thing, it just more likely that they were picked in season and fairly recently. And a fresh ripe tomato is about as good as you're going to get.