The Grower

You Say Tomato, I Say Be Patient

By Tim Stark
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What drove my poor grandfather batty was my habit of slurping the best part out of the tomatoes he had nurtured with loving care outside the kitchen door. The way you might slurp an oyster from its shell, the way you might lick the icing from an Oreo cookie, I would inhale the clear, greenish seed-beady gel sacs and leave the red pulp for Grandma to toss out. This wasn't the Depression anymore. But good lord, such waste.

All those seeds might help explain how tomato-planting genes managed to pass down to me. I'm the first Stark in five generations to take up the plow.

In my house, the phone starts ringing off the hook just after the big old sun reaches its northern terminus and starts south. "Whassup with the tomatoes?" people want to know. "They gonna be good this year? How come they're taking so long to ripen?" That last question becomes more dominant as the summer wears on.

Every year, those eagerly anticipated heirlooms, like free agents holding out for a sweeter contract, wait an extra week to ripen up. Or so it seems. Once the laughingstock of all nightshade-dom, those voluptuous misfits with the tawdry, nightclub-act names -- Cherokee Purple, Banana Legs, Green Zebra, Hillbilly, Black Russian -- have it in their power to hold us all in thrall for a good part of the summer.

My fear is that one of these years they are going to hold out a week too long, those perennial teases, and we'll have a backlash on our hands, a Thermidorian lust for the fridge-pink standby, a feverish longing for the good old days, when all the love apples you could desire were right there on the shelf 12 months of the year, appeasing and available.

No flavor shortcoming a little salt can't rectify, eh? For all their efforts to make the homegrown tomato as readily available as Murphy's Oil Soap -- from hydroponics to gene manipulation to those nonstop comfort flights from the greenhouses of Holland -- the agro-industrialists have succeeded in stocking the grocery shelves with expensive tomatoes that only appear to bear the succulent richness of the fully ripe, just-picked specimen. To fall for them is a bit like talking dirty on the telephone for $3.99 a minute. You pay a lot of money, and still you don't get the real thing. The concentrated flavor of a whole box of them couldn't match what I used to slurp from just one of Pappap's tomato-seed gel sacs.

At least the "vine ripes" don't pretend to be anything more than a crystalline mush of mealy blandness whose only virtue is a sandbag-like imperviousness to the touchy-feelies of discriminating customers.

But I digress. To answer the key perennial questions:

· They gonna be good this year? As is the case every year, that depends on who is growing them. Organic, mineral-rich soil tends to turn out a better tomato, whether or not a lot of rain falls. Another critical factor is, of course, the distance between the vine on which the tomato was grown and the shelf from which the tomato is purchased. We can't all be blessed (like me) with a grandfather whose compost-rich garden sits outside the kitchen door. If you're not growing them yourself, your best bet is to team up with a local farmer or a purveyor who you know is teaming up with a local farmer.

Whomever you are buying from, I suggest you put him or her through the Green Zebra test. That tomato glows a faint yellow color when it is ready to eat. In the palm of your hand, it should feel weightier than you would expect, as though that fragile yellowish skin can barely contain all those bursting-to-break-free juices. A perfect Green Zebra is a delight to bite into, a squirt of summer-rich flavor, a tantalizingly mineral-salted, sweet and acidic flesh.

But the variety fares poorly when it travels great distances. Shippers tend to bring them in green from California or Mexico. And green they stay. The variety is, after all, Green Zebra. When I was growing up, we invented a game called Roman Gladiator Battles in which we would gather up all the unripe plums that had fallen from the trees and throw them at each other with wicked abandon. Those hard little green plums could really sting. And many a round ended when a contestant went bawling to Mommy. By all means, buy your Green Zebras green if you're up for a round of Roman Gladiator Battles.

· How come they're taking so long to ripen? This year, our mid-Atlantic crop would have come in earlier but for the ideal growing conditions. Rain in June encouraged vine growth and healthy fruit set. July turned dry as a Mediterranean summer. In wetter years, tomatoes are susceptible to diseases such as anthracnose and early blight. Moreover, the seed inside a tomato is not viable for growing the next year's crop until the fruit ripens. The onset of disease -- leaves drying up and falling off, for instance -- tends to ripen more fruit since the tomato plants, sensing doom, are encouraged to "make babies." But a healthy tomato would just as happily stay green in its noonday glory.

Barring a barrage of September hurricanes, we're in for a beautiful, if late, tomato season, one that will carry right into October. If the rain comes hard, though, I have to count myself lucky that, like most market farmers, I am blessed with forgiving customers who will still buy my beaten-up tomatoes.

I make it my business to find a happy home for every tomato that comes off my vines. When one of them gets split so badly that even our loyal customers won't buy it, I'll eat it whole. Pappap never would have guessed I had it in me.

Tim Stark runs Eckerton Hill Farm in Hamburg, Pa., and has sold his tomatoes for a decade at, among other venues, the Union Square Greenmarket in New York. His blogs for Gourmet magazine's Choptalk can be found athttp://www.epicurious.com.


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