Let’s call it agricultural déjà vu. Last March, I was navigating a crowded outdoor market in Montevideo, Uruguay when I began asking myself the same question that had occurred to me in the cafes of France and Italy, and in the street vendor stalls of Ecuador and Panama alike. I asked myself how it could be so easy for so many countries to grow and sell juicy, sweet tomatoes while it’s so difficult to find decent tomatoes in the States. Outside of the beauties at farmer’s markets, tomatoes here in the States tend to be flavorless, because they are grown for disease resistance, long-haul shipping and shelf life. They are picked green, so they never have a chance to ripen properly. They have no smell. They have no juice. They have a faint, sickly pink color reminiscent of a preserved animal fetus in a high school biology lab.
With their high starch content, their flesh resembles that of bland, raw potatoes. Which might have a hidden benefit: tomatoes and potatoes belong to the same botanical family, so maybe I should thank the industrial growers for revealing that neat connection. Impress your friends over a round of BLP sandwiches!
Of course, it’s crazy to expect a blood-red tomato in February in the Northeast. But even now in August, when tomatoes are in season, most grocery stores and restaurants (not counting $200 per plate foodie/celebrity chef locales) still use the same mealy things that are grown in greenhouses in February. Their tomatoes are not just disease resistant: they are season resistant.
“Ripe tomatoes don’t ship well and they have a shorter shelf life, so they can’t be used,” the grocers and restaurateurs tell me. Well, that’s peculiar. The countless vendors selling ripe tomatoes in markets across Latin America and southern Europe — and the people who buy them — must be mirages. I agree that transporting a ripe tomato from, say, Oregon to New Jersey must be difficult without ending up with a mess of tomato paste all over the truck bed. A farm in the same state seems like a much better option to reduce travel trauma, but it usually doesn’t happen that way. A few cents-per-pound savings is probably the issue there. But not all issues of affordability add up the same. Let’s picture a Uruguayan making a salad from red juice-bombs that cost him the equivalent of 65 cents per pound at the local grocery store, while the American agricultural miracle produces a miraculously copious bounty of fetus-pink tomatoes that, pound for pound, retail for fifty percent more.
Of course, if you have dirt, lots of sun, and a little time, you can grow your own. I can’t, since I live in an apartment, but this year my wife and I have been periodically tending a few beds of tomatoes at my parents’ house in Connecticut. Last weekend produced the table-filling assortment above.
The local chowhounds — deer, chipmunks, and other unidentified critters who left their bucktoothed bite marks in several of the heirlooms we had to discard — agree that the buffet was worth repeat visits. Fortunately, they saved us some. The green zebra tomatoes, with their soft sweetness and their tease of tropical citrus, may be my favorite.
As I bit into a deep, wet slice in the kitchen, my mind tunneled back to that aforementioned humid March day in Montevideo. (Conveniently, our winter is their summer. Thanks, axial tilt!) I had been craving sweet tomatoes because I was months away from tomato season in New York, so I bought a kilogram bag of plum-sized tomatoes from the street vendor’s pyramid display and quickly brought them back to my hotel room. I dispensed with basil / salt / utensils and found myself biting into the tomatoes like apples. Juice dripped down my arm and from the corners of my mouth, running down my chest. The seeds stuck wherever they wanted on the way down. I didn’t even bother to close the blinds.