Fresh, red, mouth-watering tomatoes — the kind that have become so rare — have an almost magical power to evoke memories of our past. Like most Southerners, I do not have to reach back very far into family history to find rural, small-farm roots. My grandmother was born and raised on a farm in Madison County, Tennessee. As a boy I cherished visits to “the country” and vividly remember lunch time when everyone would come in and sit down at a table overflowing with fresh vegetables from the farm: black-eyed peas, field peas, pole beans (with a little ham for seasoning), chilled green onions and, of course, tomatoes. Lots of them. Sauce from the vegetables was cleaned up with a little cornbread and eased down with iced tea. As best I can remember, food never tasted so good.
That was many years ago and it seems that my own memories of those days are recalled less and less often now. But recently that lunch time scene on my grandmother’s farm shot through my mind with no warning at all. I had been working for a newspaper and traveling in Africa and was eating dinner one evening at a friend’s home in Senegal, West Africa. I was served sliced tomatoes from my friend’s garden. As I took my first bite, the image of my grandmother, her farm and lunch time around the kitchen table flashed into my mind. It surprised me — I couldn’t imagine why. Only later that evening did I make the connection. The TASTE of my friend’s tomatoes — a taste I had almost forgotten — had forced those old memories to reappear. Then as never before did I realize how tasteless and bland our own tomatoes had become. I was angry and sad.
THE DE-GREENING OF TOMATOES
Later, I discovered that I was not the only one upset about the quality of tomatoes. In 1975, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its first survey of consumer satisfaction with food products. Dissatisfaction with the tomato outranked all other items on the survey.1 The pale, pink tomatoes stacked in piles in the supermarkets lacked taste, they were dry and chewy. And those put to rest three to a box, enshrouded in plastic, were simply disgusting. What had happened to this formerly magnificent fruit?
The old-fashioned tomatoes we remember for their taste were grown by small farmers. The popular tomato strains were those with good flavor and high yields. The tomatoes themselves were allowed to ripen on the vine in the sunshine and then were hand-picked and marketed locally while still fresh.
Despite their success in growing such a fine tomato, family farmers were quickly becoming an endangered species. Literally thousands were going out of business every week. Chain supermarkets and convenience stores replaced the neighborhood grocery store. The new stores, having little stake in the community, preferred to deal with big wholesalers who could supply all their needs year-round rather than with local, individual family farmers. Production for the “fresh tomato” market shifted to huge, specialized farms in Florida, California and Mexico.
Ripe tomatoes, however, are difficult to ship long distances. They crack, split open and rot. So the “fresh” tomatoes we buy in the supermarkets are picked while they are still green and firm — and then taken to be gassed. (The industry prefers to call this “de-greening.”) In fifty-foot-long gas chambers, Ethrel gas (2-chloroethyl-phosphonic acid)2 is pumped in to turn the tomatoes pink. Ready or not, the tomato begins to look ripe. However, many are not ripe, for as any backyard gardener knows, tomatoes mature at different rates. A red tomato that has been gassed is not necessarily a ripe tomato or a nutritious tomato.3
In nature the ripening process involves much more than a simple change of color. The fresh tomato flavor we appreciate depends on “high sugars and a favorable sugar/acid ratio”4 as well as the “subtle interaction of scores of aromatic compounds in the plant.”5 Many tomatoes never get this far in the ripening process. Six out of every seven tomatoes shipped from Florida has been picked green and gassed.6 Recently, big suppliers have turned to gassing their tomatoes right on the vine to “ripen” all of them simultaneously, thus eliminating the need for paying people to go through the fields more than once as the tomatoes become ripe. Bad tomatoes, it seems, are good business.
ENTER THE HARD TOMATO
Here’s how a study for the Department of Labor described the invention of the thick-skinned, “hard” tomato: “Traditionally, California had depended on imported labor to harvest vegetable crops. It began with the Chinese coolie. This was followed by the Japanese, Italians and Portuguese, Hindus, Filipinos, and finally the Braceros. In 1942, realizing that California would soon run out of nationalities to harvest the crops, the University began to develop a tomato that could be harvested mechanically.”7 A quarter-century of federally-funded research followed to develop a machine that few needed and only the well-heeled could afford. But normal, old-fashioned tomatoes were too delicate for the machines, so tough, thick-skinned tomatoes were developed — tomatoes with names like “MH-1.” Dropped from a height of six feet, the marvelous MH-1 will hit the floor at over 13 miles per hour without splitting better than twice the speed of federal auto-bumper safety standards.8 At last, a SAFE tomato!
“You may not like the taste of these tomatoes,” declared a USDA official, “but your children will never know the difference.”9 Where, one wonders, is the consumer demand for a tasteless tomato? Or for the square tomato which is being developed to make packing more efficient? Or for tomatoes that won’t ripen without gas? Or for the tomatoes sprayed with a thin coat of wax to restore their luster and “make them look sexier,“ as one producer explained it? Could it be that such tomatoes are being offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis by interests so powerful that they need not worry about consumer satisfaction or competition from honest tomatoes produced by the dwindling number of small farmers?
I am just old-fashioned enough to want my children to know what real, fresh tomatoes tasted like in my childhood. If ever the time comes when no one can remember, then we will have lost something indeed. Most family farmers still take pride in growing a tomato worthy of putting on your table. Preservers of a fine tradition and providers of mighty good eating, these men and women deserve our support and our thanks. They are what’s standing between us and the square tomato.
Most of us have the notion that the tomato is a vegetable native to Italy. In fact, the tomato is a fruit! And it was not introduced into Italy and Europe until the mid-sixteenth century. Many Europeans thought it had aphrodisiac qualities and called it the “love apple.” In its wild form, the tomato originated in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia and came in red, orange and yellow varieties. Mexican Indians cultivated it in their corn fields and called it “tomati.”
For some reasons, Americans couldn’t quite decide what to do with the new fruit when it arrived in the late eighteenth century. Some regarded it as the love apple while others believed it was poisonous — its genus name means “wolf’s peach.” In the 1870s, canned tomatoes became popular and Joseph Campbell and Abraham Anderson began canning beefsteak tomatoes — one to a can — in Camden, New Jersey. Campbell Soup Company was thus born, and the tomato, for better or worse, entered the world of big business.
- New York Times, April 15, 1975, p. 37.
- Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times, by James Hightower. Schenkman Publishers, Cambridge, Mass. : 1973, p. 46.
- Hightower, 1973. p. 47. See also, New York Times, October 19, 1975, III, p. 15.
- “A Reporter at Large: Tomatoes,” by Thomas Whiteside. The New Yorker, January 24, 1977. p. 47. (from an article in Western Grower & Shipper by Dr. M. Allen Stevens.)
- Whiteside, p. 47.
- Whiteside, p. 41.
- “Breeding Development for Fruit Vegetables,” by James W. Strobel, G.C. Hanna, P.G. Smith, C.A. John, G.B. Reynard, E.V. Wann and P.W. Leeper in Fruit and Vegetable Harvest Mechanization: Technological Implications, edited by B.F. Cargill and G.E. Rossmiller. Rural Manpower Center, Michigan State University, East Lansing: 1969, p. 241.
- Whiteside, p. 61.
- Eat Your Heart Out: How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer, by Jim Hightower. Crown Publishers, New York: 1975, p. 101.
[Cary was assisted in writing this article by Sara Fowler and Alice Ammerman.]