So somebody finally figured out why commercial tomatoes taste so bland. According to a recent article in Science, it’s because the selective breeding that has made tomatoes ripen to a uniform red also has made “ripe fruit sugar and lycopene levels decrease.” But the tomato, the authors confidently conclude, can be turned around just as simply as it was robbed of its power to satisfy and nourish.
I see it a little differently. It’s true that people associate a deepening redness with ripeness — in a strawberry, raspberry, cherry, apple (unless of course it’s a Russet or a Granny Smith). But I’m reminded of a trip I once took to Italy with my husband, Eliot, where we were introduced to green-shouldered, unripe-looking tomatoes that were delicious anyway. It took exactly five seconds to change our narrow-minded view of tomato color. Why, in all those dark decades of ignorance, did it take genetic mapping to point out this obvious blind spot? And what will they leave out next? Give me the slow, messy progress of lots of people tasting and growing lots of tomatoes, and saving the seeds of the tastiest for growing the next season. You’ll get a better tomato.
I’m also reminded of a delightful book I read recently by Tracey Lawson called “A Year in the Village of Eternity.” It takes you through 12 months in the little Italian hill town of Campodimele, whose residents have drawn much scientific curiosity because of their longevity and their vigor even in old age. Is it their genes? Is it the olive oil? Their close-knit community ties? Their after-dinner stroll? As in Patience Gray’s 1986 classic “Honey From a Weed,” these villagers make their delicious meals from scratch, chiefly from ingredients they grow or forage on the mountain behind the town. And in the end the point isn’t that they live so long, but that they live so well.
Lawson introduces us to the concept of cibo genuino, which seems exactly like what Eliot and I call “real food.” Home cooked as opposed to ready-made; from the kitchen, not from the lab; agricultural, not industrial; biological, not chemical. It is food that is verified by your taste buds, not “as advertised on TV,” and food that tastes good instead of merely looking good.
None of us know how long our lives will be. But we can try to enjoy them in good health. As the old Sicilian proverb goes, “What you don’t pay for at the table you pay for at the doctor.”
No, we can’t all move to an Italian hill town or spend our time making sausages. But we can try to insert more of the Campodimele philosophy into our days. And next summer we can plant some of those excellent green-shouldered tomatoes. Seeds From Italy lists several, such as Pantano, at www.growitalian.com.
Yes, the latest genetic milestone may give us supermarket tomatoes that taste less like sawdust. But they will not be cibo genuino.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and author of “The Garden Primer.”