It’s the tomato, though, where the contrast seems so stark. If you read Barry Estabrook’s account of the industrial tomato, “Tomatoland” (Andrews McMeel, 2011), you get a sense of just why the grocery store article is so unsatisfying. Winter tomatoes are grown as a chemically dependent monoculture in Florida, picked green and then gassed into a state of ripeness. Part of the difficulty is that not all green tomatoes are the same: One picked close to redness will gas-ripen into something palatable. One that is younger won’t.
Pickers might be instructed to take tomatoes below a certain level on the vine, which “increases the odds that most of the tomatoes picked are mature greens but provides no guarantee,” writes Estabrook, “which is one reason so many industrial tomatoes taste like nothing.”
In the case of the apple, the industry realized that even the least savvy consumers were becoming discerning enough to reject the blandest varieties, no matter how pretty they looked. You can now get half a dozen varieties or more, some quite tasty.
As for that other perfect red globe, supermarkets are using more greenhouse-grown, vine-ripened tomatoes, and the tomato industry is seeking to improve the flavor and reputation of its product by turning to improved mass-produced varieties. Estabrook writes of first sampling Tasti-Lee. “It was by no means a great tomato . . . but it was nonetheless unmistakably a tomato.”
Still, for the faithful, the only true tomato is the plump article that has ripened in your summer garden.
The difficulty is that the reality of tomato-growing tends not to match its promise. There is never quite an optimum growing season. It’s either too dry, too hot or too wet, or like last year, all three.
I grew two rare Amish heirloom beefsteak varieties that were guaranteed to knock my socks off. By late August, my socks were still on. The large, ugly, ribbed beauties weren’t bad, but they weren’t transcendent, as billed. They were flavorful, and the fruits weighed more than a pound apiece.
Raising such giants takes it out of the plant, however, so the yield might be down to just three or four fruits. With so much invested in so few, you know something’s going to go wrong, such as finding teeth marks on the day of harvest. This was my experience last year. “Chipmunks,” sniffed my neighbor. This somehow seemed more comforting than rats. Also, the longer a vine takes to do its thing, the greater the chance of it succumbing to blights.