Below the Beltway

Below the Beltway: You Say Tomato

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, September 27, 2009

I just finished harvesting the last of my homegrown tomatoes. It was a highly productive summer for my little urban garden: More than 300 fruits, each round and ripe and as tasteless as tapwater, all with a faintly metallic bouquet, like licking a refrigerator door; 300 scarlet orbs of pulpy goo beneath skin the consistency of human ear cartilage.

It's okay, it's what I'm used to! It's what you're used to, too, though you probably don't realize it. According to the Commerce Department, you're cheerfully consuming tomatoes by the hundreds of millions.

Oh, if you are older than 40, you probably realize that the tomatoes you buy in stores are not like those of your youth. You probably even know why: Commercial tomatoes have been bred to Frankensteinian proportions by rapacious agri-conglomerates, to fit perfectly on a supersize burger, and/or they've been deadened to maximize appearance and shelf life at the expense of taste. But you probably retain some confidence in the integrity of the farmer-raised tomato, and, above all, the so-called heirlooms -- the popular garden variety that have been given charmingly gooberish names like Mortgage Lifter and Arkansas Traveler, and that supposedly tap into ancient unsullied gene pools, grown by cloistered monks to the soothing music of lutes and lyres, under the direct stewardship of God Himself.

Nope. Sorry. All crap. I shop at a farmer's market, and I grow heirlooms. I admit my standards of comparison are high. The best tomatoes I've ever had were grown by an old lady named Mary Conesa in the back yard of her general store in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., where my parents had a summer house in the late 1950s. Mary was a neighbor; it was not until the day we had dinner at her home that we realized her startling secret: After the meal, she dumped all the table scraps -- corncobs, pork chops, etc. -- out the window onto her tomatoes. They grew in rotting filth.

I'd try to replicate the rotting filth method today, but I know it's no use: The good seeds are not out there. Something dastardly has been done to the American tomato, across the board, whether or not your benumbed palate has personally acknowledged it. There are decent tomatoes to be had, and there are awful tomatoes, but there are no perfect tomatoes anymore, the kind you want to bite into whole, like an apple, with sugary flesh and paper-thin skins that snap under the tooth and spill seedy juice down your chin.

You may think me at best an elitist and at worst a grumpy generational chauvinist, the kind of old fart who believes civilization is in irreversible decline because people use "imply" and "infer" interchangeably, which I do believe, but that's not the point. I am right about tomatoes, too.

I am aware that my assertion is unprovable, since taste is subjective and, when it comes to perishables, what's past is past. (I tried to confirm this obvious epistemological truth by calling an actual epistemologist, Dr. Alex Byrne, a philosophy professor at MIT. We had barely begun to talk before it became clear to both of us that any meaningful dialogue was impossible: Byrne, a Brit, says "tomahto." I say "tomayto.")

I found a better authority to interview: Dr. Autar Mattoo, the USDA expert on tomatoes. I called him:

Me: Are you aware that your last name is an anagram of "tomato"?

Dr. Mattoo: I am! Not many people notice!

Me: Why do people think they're eating great tomatoes?

Dr. Mattoo: Maybe they are only 20 years old!


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