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Hope for 'tomato deprivation' sufferers
December 2nd, 2011
03:56 PM ET

Hope for 'tomato deprivation' sufferers

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.

I reconnected with a rainbow coalition of old pals - Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, Sun Gold (soooo sweet), Yellow Pear, Green Zebra, Great White. Then I reminded myself that this tomato-y bounty was for the moment only on paper. The pleasures elicited by the catalog were eight months and one long, dreary New England winter away. Seed companies really know how to hurt a guy.

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.


soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Kathleen

    My mother always thought someone should write an Ode To A Sun-Ripened Tomato.

    December 2, 2011 at 16:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Amy

      John Denver wrote "Home Grown Tomatoes"

      December 5, 2011 at 12:52 | Report abuse |
  2. iminim

    Just ordered my seeds & starter peat pots on line 3 days ago. Can't wait until February, when I can pull out the grow light & start planting the seeds in preparation for the spring planting!

    December 2, 2011 at 16:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Sara

    The Camparis are good, and tend to last pretty well. (Of course, that being said, my last couple purchases haven't lasted as long as I remember some other purchases lasting.) Kumatoes are good, too, but they're too sweet for tomato sandwiches and they're way expensive.

    December 2, 2011 at 16:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. willow

    This is a nice good article. Commercial tomato growers have breed out flavor. I grow Homestead from seed which is an heirloom tomato, medium size and flavorful. It can withstand long periods of drought and bugs/disease do not affect the plant. The problem is that is it very hard to find.

    December 2, 2011 at 18:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TomatoLady

      I order my seeds online from http://www.tomatogrowers.com
      I searched there for Homestead and found them.
      I might give that variety a try this year.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:44 | Report abuse |
  5. c s

    I love tomatoes too. The last of my summer tomatoes are ripening in my kitchen and will be used in a salad soon. Even the supermarket tomatoes can be improved by what you do after buying them. First and foremost; do not put them in the refrigerator. Set them out in the kitchen. The maybe red but they are still ripening. Let them ripen and only your touch can tell if they are ready. If they are hard: do not eat them. After a few days they will start to soften and then you can used them. They will taste as good as the summer tomatoes but they will be much better at room temperature than cold from the fridge.

    December 2, 2011 at 20:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • c s

      I meant to say "They will not taste as good as the summer tomatoes but they will be much better at room temperature than cold from the fridge."

      December 2, 2011 at 20:06 | Report abuse |
  6. r

    Luckily, we have a great family owned store in our area and they grow their tomatoes in greenhouses near their stores.

    December 2, 2011 at 20:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. us1776

    Amen !

    .

    December 2, 2011 at 21:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Kelii

    I too am a tomato fiend and feel so lucky to be able to grow fantastic heirloom tomatoes year round here in Hawaii.

    December 2, 2011 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Bernard Liller

    DR SANJAY GUPTA.......CAN YOU PLEASE CONTACT AND INTERVIEW THE TOMATO INDUSTRY FOR A REPLY?

    December 3, 2011 at 08:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. ramona

    i freeze my vine ripe tomatoes, whole.....then, tho not being able to use them in a salad they r good for cooking and gives my food the taste of summer......my grandma told to do this when i told her i had more tomatoes than friends and neighbors to give them to......

    December 3, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. dropthedash

    I totally agree with the writer. Each year, I plant less variety of plants but more varieties of tomatoes. I believe next year's garden will be all tomatoes. Nothing gives as much pleasure from a home garden than tomatoes....yum

    December 3, 2011 at 15:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Pat Cormack

    I have been growing backyard tomatoes for 50 years since I learned from the victory garden era. Only fresh grown tomatoes are the best and appreciated by a bag on one's doorstep. I can them along with salsa here in Southern California as there is nothing greater then hardy chili with the sweet ttomates on a January day. Loved your article.

    December 3, 2011 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Poodles

    Squirrels rabbits gophers ducks geese horses cows gerbils cats dogs eagles.

    December 3, 2011 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Dahlimama

    Breeders often have to face the truth of something not even given the merest of mention in your article, disease! Breeders are faced with constantly evolving pathogens and they diligently try to keep up with a disease resistant variety that will survive the onslaught long enough for you to get a tomato to taste. Back yard gardeners have a few plants they can baby to maturity and if the lose their crop to late blight ( phytopthora) they'll just go to the grocery store and buy some and eat them whilst complaining. Commercial growers are trying to bring to harvest large fields of vegetables that stand up to the rigors of machine harvest shipping long enough to be frozen or canned to tide us through the winter. Never forget, YOU have the luxury to complain because a breeder somewhere developed a variety that didn't bruise and rot before it got to the cannery. You have the luxury of CHOOSING to can enough food to feed your whole through the winter it is not a necessity. As a seed salesman working for a large, very old seed company I can tell you that we offer something for everyone. When you call me I will ask where you plan to market your harvest,will it be sold at farmers market as a fresh market crop or shipped to a supermarket or cannery, will it be hand or machine harvested, what is your climate conditions, is it a first, mid or late season crop for you ( never recommend a variety without a good disease package for a late season crop as there is more disease and insect pressure later in the season). The whole picture is much more complicated than this article leads you to believe, we do recommend the tastiest varieties for home and fresh market gardeners but the reality that we live in an over populated world that must be fed means that it is those INSENSITIVE breeders that have kept you all fat and happy as population has exploded. Dirt is not just an inanimate object to be swept out the door when it tracks in on your feet it is a living universe full of microbes that help your food grow or destroys it. I just wanted to give you all a few facts to ruminate on whilst you all have fun making light of the fact that scientists have made it possible for you live the life you do in the comfort of knowing that if your little home garden fails you can still go to the supermarket and buy enough food to live through the winet.

    December 4, 2011 at 06:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Steve Pipkin

    I recall one of the earliest MacNeil Lehrer reports on tasteless tomatoes in grocery stores. Their expert cut into several tomatoes and seemed surprised at how good store bought tomatoes were in late April. It was pretty funny, In the following link there is a reference to the report:

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/july-dec00/25years_10-20-00.html

    December 4, 2011 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. 1nohojen

    How I long for a home-grown beefstake tomato. Simply the best!

    December 4, 2011 at 18:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Ludmila

    This year I spent so much on tulip bulbs so I told myself: no more seed orders until January! But the catalogs started to arrive.... It's getting so tempting!

    December 4, 2011 at 19:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Jasper

    Read Tomatoland......I've got about 30 pages left.

    December 4, 2011 at 20:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Jasper

    Actually...........this article is kind of a rip off of that book.

    December 4, 2011 at 20:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CaitlinCNN

      Hi Jasper! Just wanted to be sure you saw that the author of this blog is indeed also the author of "Tomatoland". Not so much a rip-off of the book as a summary of his work. Thanks for reading!

      December 5, 2011 at 12:34 | Report abuse |
    • SP

      Nice, I'm going to have to check out Tomatoland 😉

      December 5, 2011 at 13:46 | Report abuse |
  20. Ted from NY

    Try locally-grown organic tomatoes. An incredible taste of Heaven. After eating them for the past 15 years I'll never go back to trucked-in supermarket tomatoes which, as the man said, really, actually do taste like cardboard by comparison.

    December 5, 2011 at 09:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Chartreuxe

    Recently I developed a tomato allergy. This has grieved me so much more than my onion allergy or my hay fever allergies. I've loved tomatoes all my life. I miss V8 juice and pizza and fresh picked sliced tomatoes with fresh ground sea salt more than I can describe to anyone reading this post. My father-in-law once grew wonderful beefsteak tomatoes on the site of an abandoned wood pile and I ate 7 of those tasty tomatoes at a single sitting! They were perfection!

    I envy everyone who can still enjoy this delicious fruit. My mouth waters as I recall the wonderful flavour I'll miss forever. When spring arrives and tomatoes turn pink and then bright red, think of me. I'll certainly be thinking of all of you.

    December 5, 2011 at 09:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. WebDragon

    I'm restricted to patio pots under a shaded awning rather than a real garden out in the sun, but tomatoes have always done well for me, and I yearn for the season when I'm eyeing the overnight low temps and wondering whether it's too early to finally pot up the seedlings outside. I'm a big fan of romas and the like, but will be getting extra pots this year to try some of the wackier heirlooms available from our local nursery. Anybody got a suggestion for a quick-maturing variety that can tolerate cold nights (zone 4)?

    December 5, 2011 at 13:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. John Richard Bell

    I will admit a bias becasuse I'm an advisor to Houweling's Greenhouse Tomatoes of Carmarillo, California. But KCET television is impartial. Here's their take on the Tomato Farm of the Future – worth 5 minutes of your time. http://www.kcet.org/shows/socal_connected/content/environment/tomato-futures.html

    December 6, 2011 at 14:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Drivenbyfacts

    The growers don't breed out the flavor...the BREEDERS do. And the tradeoff for taste is disease resistance whicn in turn triples yields. Yes indeed I love a good homegrown tomato and eschew the cardboard versions we are presented at the mass market. But were it not for those plants bred for disease resistance growers would be forced to use triple the amount of fungicides to get the same yield as old varieties. Bottom line, grow your own.
    P.S. Ethlyne is a naturally occuring substance, a byproduct of decaying vegetation.

    December 6, 2011 at 16:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Materman

    I tried the Cherokee Purple and Mr. Stripey. The Cherokee Purples remind you of why you fell in love with tomatoes. The are a revelation. I will never plant any tomato that is not a heirloom variety.

    December 6, 2011 at 23:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Justyna

    I'm not alone! Many times I've been saddened by a flavourless tomato on my lunch plate. Next summer I will be planting tomatoes in the backyard of our new house though. Woohoo!

    November 1, 2012 at 10:50 | Report abuse | Reply

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