They aren't heirloom unless your grandmother gave them to you

Meditations on the end of the tomato season

October 02, 2013|Susan Reimer

Today we revisit one of my favorite topics. Tomatoes.

I bet you thought I was going to write about the government shutdown, but giving Congress ink is like giving a fool a microphone. So let's talk about tomatoes.

I went to my favorite farmers' market in Annapolis this weekend and greedily filled my basket. I am hoarding against the possibility that a sudden storm will arrive and, although we need the rain, cause the last tomatoes in the field to swell and split and rot.

The drought actually has been a boon to us tomato lovers. It concentrates the elements inside the tomato and makes it taste so much better — that wonderful place between sweet and tart.

I made a giant salad caprese, with fresh mozzarella and basil, on a platter normally reserved for the Thanksgiving turkey. I used heirloom tomatoes in the colors of green, pink, yellow and red, and it looked like a United Colors of Benetton ad. And it was a smashing success. Not even a seed left.

Heirloom tomatoes are neither handed down from generation to generation nor are they kept in tissue and given to a bride on her wedding day. They just look funny and taste better than their hybridized kin.

But using the word "heirloom" to describe my tomatoes classifies me as a food snob, according to an entry in Vanity Fair magazine's video "Snob Dictionary." It puts me in the company of "beardy young neo-rustics who are only too happy to try their hand at cultivating antique produce."

I also bought a big bag of unripened "non-heirloom" tomatoes from a farmer for just $2, with plans to fry them. "I just want to be rid of them," she said, offering me more for free. And while I can understand the fatigue at the end of a growing season, that sounded like heresy to me. We all know what waits for us now — nine months of soulless orange globes that taste like wet socks.

Scientists are trying to fix that. In a lab at the University of Florida, they are trying to grow a better supermarket tomato by sequencing the tomato genome and sorting through more than 400 "flavor components" to find out what exactly makes a tomato taste good. (We are not talking Monsanto or GMO here. They are doing it through regular breeding.)

I am not hopeful. Winter tomatoes, uniformly round and with thick skins, are picked green, shipped hundreds of miles and then gassed with ethylene to turn them pinkish-orange. That will never be the same as stepping into the garden. And besides, the scientists think they might be 5 to 8 years away.

In the meantime, there is this news. A company in England has developed the TomTato, a plant that produces tomatoes above ground and potatoes below. At the same time. It is a grafting trick, not a miracle. But as one wag put it, you can now get your French fries and your ketchup from the same plant. Though the $24 price is pretty steep when compared to the McDonald's dollar menu. And they are only available in the United Kingdom.

Flavor isn't the only issue with winter tomatoes. Labor is, too. Because of this country's screwed up immigration policy and the problems farmers have getting work permits for migrant laborers, there isn't enough help available to stake, tie, prune and harvest tomatoes, which cost about $15,000 an acre to grow — 55 percent of it labor costs.

So, again at the University of Florida, they are trying to breed a low-growing bush tomato that wouldn't require staking or tying and could be mechanically harvested for grocery stores. (They are already harvested mechanically for processing.) That will also require a tomato that comes loose from the stem easily so there are no puncture wounds.

I get the economics here, but it seems to me that when you fundamentally redesign a tomato, you are bound to screw things up in the process.

Why not make tomatoes cube shaped, while you are at it, so you can stack them? And make them solid, so they don't bruise. And make it so you buy the juice separately, in a paper carton, and add it later.

Oh. Wait. That's what Congress would do if you gave them the job of creating the perfect tomato. Either that, or there would be no tomatoes at all.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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