December 2nd, 2011
03:56 PM ET
Barry Estabrook is the author of "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit."
My favorite garden catalog arrived this week. I am an unabashed lover of tomatoes - real tomatoes that I grow in the summer, not the tough, tasteless orbs that pass for tomatoes in supermarkets this time of year.
So I immediately flipped the pages until I found the tomato section and began gazing longingly at glossy photographs of dear friends from the bygone days of summer.
There was Moskvich, dainty and round, not the best-tasting tomato, but the earliest, a trait that endears the variety to me. And Brandywine, of course, whose pinkish, lumpy, deeply creased fruits are hands down the homeliest tomatoes in my patch, but whose flavor is unequaled: An earthy balance of sweet and tart, the distilled essence of a warm sunny afternoon.
The tomatoes piled so attractively in the produce section of my local supermarket look every bit as tasty as the ones pictured in the catalog, but I know better. Biting into those out-of-season fruits, often picked while still green, gassed with ethylene to make them look ripe, and trucked hundreds of miles, would be no more rewarding than chewing the pages of the catalog.
The sad truth is that for the past half-century, commercial tomato breeders have concentrated on creating varieties that give tremendous yields of tough-skinned fruits. Flavor was simply not a consideration. One grower truthfully told me, “I get paid by the pound. I don’t get a cent for taste.” As a result, tomato yields today are triple what they were in the 1970s, but the genetic material that delivers flavor has been lost.
Fortunately, there’s hope for those of us who suffer from TDS (Tomato Deprivation Syndrome).
Over the last few years, newcomers have begun appearing in the tomato sections of grocery stores. Called salad tomatoes, these fruits are small - about the size of golf balls - and grown in greenhouses. While they don’t deliver anything close to the full flavor wattage of an August Brandywine and cost more than $4 a pound, they do taste like tomatoes.
Salad tomatoes are sold under the brand names Campari and Backyard Farms. I use them as emergency backup, substitutes when canned San Marzano tomatoes can’t work in a recipe.
The other good news is that the breeders who develop seeds for commercial tomato producers have at long last awoken to something the rest of us have known all along: Supermarket tomatoes don't taste good. They are now developing varieties that can stand up to the indignities of industrial harvesting, packing, and shipping, yet still retain some traces of taste.
In a couple of weeks, I will place my 2012 seed order. It will include all my old tomato friends, and those glossy pictures and hyperbolic descriptions will seduce me into trying a few new ones.
Almost certainly, I will purchase more varieties than I can accommodate in my garden. And on a warm afternoon next summer, I will spy that tell-tale shade of red among my green vines. Standing in the garden and biting into the season’s first real tomato, I will be reminded that life’s greatest pleasures are worth waiting for.
For more on Barry Estabrook's "Tomatoland," watch "Sanjay Gupta M.D." on Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET.
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