It is the time of year when my passion blooms anew, and it is for tomatoes.
I eat them with every meal and in between, as if I could store them in my taste buds against the winter, when the tomatoes in the grocery store taste like some kind of pale red nothing.
I make friends based on whether they have a tomato patch I might benefit from — it is my curse that I can't seem to grow them myself — and I combine them with every other fresh vegetable out there in one recipe or another. Soups, salads, sauces. I swear if you cut me, I would bleed gazpacho.
So you'd best believe me when I tell you that tomatoes aren't tasting all that good these days, and it isn't just because of the drought, although that hasn't helped.
Since the 1930s, farmers have been breeding tomatoes with tougher skin for shipping and harvesting them when they are green so they ripen in a truck instead of on a vine. They have also been breeding tomatoes for yield, and the result is the plants simply can't keep up with the fruit they are producing — they can't make enough sugars and nutrients.
A remedy for this taste problem may be in the offing. Researchers reported in a recent issue of Science that in tinkering with tomato genes (did you know there was actually a tomato genome project?) to create a uniformly green — and ultimately uniformly red — tomato, hybridizers accidentally hit the off switch for a protein that triggers the manufacture of the sugars that give tomatoes their flavor. And researchers found a way to turn it back on.
(But get this: the researchers, because of scientific protocol, were not allowed to actually taste the tomato variety with the corrected double helix, so they don't know if it tastes better. I think they should have just called me.)
I am heavy into divinely flavorful heirlooms in any case, and the lady who sells them to me at the farmers market actually describes them as if she were writing a profile for an on-line dating site. She even calls them her "girls."
They have exotic names and they come in every color except plaid. They are expensive, to be sure, but that's because you might only get five or six from a plant instead of 25 or 30 from a high-producing hybrid. And they have a very, very short shelf life.
I asked my friend Barbara Melera, owner of D. Landreth Seeds, now located in Pennsylvania but previously headquartered in Baltimore, why, of all the bounty of summer, do we seem to love tomatoes best?
Actually, she said, tomato love is a Mid-Atlantic phenomenon. Other parts of the country have their favorite foods, too, but nobody goes as crazy for tomatoes as we do. And it makes sense, she said, because tomatoes as we know them were more or less born here, in Baltimore County.
And she tells the story of Dr. T.J. Hand, a Baltimore County physician in the 1860s whose avocation was growing tomatoes.
Though Landreth offered the first tomato seeds for sale in 1820, it was not a popular food, let alone garden crop. People feared they were poisonous (the combination of their acid with pewter dishware could indeed produce a lethal dose of lead, and their reputation also suffered from membership in the poisonous nightshade family of plants), so they confined themselves to eating little cherry tomatoes and small, pear-shaped golden tomatoes.
There were only a couple of sandwich-sized tomatoes available to grow at the time, and one was tasty but had a tough, bitter, bumpy skin. The other had a thinner skin but a tasteless, watery pulp.
Dr. Hand was able to breed a slicing tomato that had the thin, smooth skin of one and the rich tasting pulp of the other, and he called it the Trophy tomato.
He tired of his hobby and passed his seeds to Col. George Waring Jr. of Rhode Island, who built sewer systems but also liked to garden. He popularized the new tomato in the 1870s with a contest. He sold Trophy tomato seeds for 25 cents each — a king's ransom for a seed then — and offered a $100 prize to the gardener who grew the biggest one.
With the contest, the popularity of the tomato soared, and Col. Waring, who had cleverly kept the tomato seeds from the winners for himself, was able to sell the lot to Burpee and Park seed companies, which still exist today.
"The reason we are so in love with tomatoes in the Mid-Atlantic is that they were developed and refined here," said Ms. Melera, who grew up in Baltimore. Her company, the oldest seed company in the country, sells 70 kinds of heirloom tomato seeds, but there are hundreds out there.
"We were exposed, as a population, to the best tomato breeding ever. We love them so much because we had the best."
In a previous column I incorrectly described Penn State's alumni association. It is the largest dues-paying organization of its kind, but the National Rifle Association has more dues-paying members. I regret the error.
Susan Reimer's column appears on Monday's and Thursdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts