The next best thing: Does Jay Scott hold the future of decent store-bought tomatoes in his hands?

By Barry Estabrook
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In supermarket tomatodom, this is the Holy Grail: a fruit thick-skinned enough to shrug off the insults of modern agribusiness, but still tender at heart and tasting like, well, a tomato. And John "Jay" Scott might have discovered it.

Scott is a horticulture professor and tomato breeder at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center outside Tampa. For more than a decade, he has worked to perfect a tomato variety called Tasti-Lee. This spring, Tasti-Lee left the rarefied confines of academic test plots and rigorously monitored consumer-tasting panels to make its way in the competitive hurly-burly of Florida's $619 million tomato industry. The state produces about half of the fresh tomatoes grown in the United States; between October and June, virtually all fresh, field-grown tomatoes come from Florida. The high-stakes business is littered with once-promising but now-forgotten tomato varieties.

If Tasti-Lee lives up to its early promise, Scott, who has bred between 30 and 40 new tomato varieties ("I haven't gone back and counted in a while") over nearly four decades, will achieve a plant breeder's version of immortality. And the rest of us finally will be able to head to the local supermarket any day of the year and bring home a nutritious, decent-tasting tomato.

Scott, 61, is aware that mere mention of winter tomatoes being trucked north from Florida is anathema to locavores, but he's also a realist. "Consumers tend to be spoiled," he said. "They go into the grocery store and they expect to see fresh tomatoes any time of year, even if they grumble about the quality. I want people to buy Tasti-Lees because they like them, not just because they are the only tomatoes there."

During the warmer months, large-scale fresh, field-grown tomato production migrates north from southern Florida to the state's panhandle, through the Carolinas and as far as New Jersey. In the depths of winter, Mexico supplies fresh tomatoes to the United States.

These commodity fruits are the workhorses of the tomato trade, always in the local supermarket and a mainstay of chain restaurants, where they are chopped into salsa, tossed into prepared salads and slipped between hamburger buns. Increasingly, they find themselves sharing produce-counter space with branded, on-vine fruits grown in greenhouses in all parts of the country as well as new hybrids such as the trademarked UglyRipe, which looks (and, producers claim, tastes) like beloved heirloom varieties. These newcomers cost four times as much as commodity tomatoes. Tasti-Lee is designed to give commodity farmers a tomato that can compete in this premium market.

Like many plant varieties, Tasti-Lee owes its existence to a combination of serendipity and the keen eye of an experienced plant breeder. In Florida, the summer of 1998 was a terrible season for anyone trying to grow a tasty tomato, Scott said. For some unknown reason -- too wet, too cloudy, too hot? -- Scott's tomato field tests, which included hundreds of genetic lines, failed to produce fruits with any sweetness. Even varieties that had been sweet in previous years tasted bland. But one morning while out in the field, Scott spotted a nice-looking tomato called Fla. 7907. He picked a fruit, took out his pocket knife, cut off a wedge and popped it into his mouth. "Aha!" he said.

It was sweet, but Fla. 7907 had one big flaw that made it a non-starter for commercial production: It was almost perfectly spherical. The industry demands tomatoes with flattened tops and bottoms that can be picked green, sorted on a conveyor belt, gassed with ethylene until they acquire the desired red-orange hue, and trucked for hundreds of miles, the path a typical fresh Florida tomato takes to market.

Not only do commercial tomatoes have to be the right shape, but they also have to be hard, and 7907 was softer than most agribusiness tomatoes. To be successful, such varieties also must produce high yields of large, uniform fruit. They have to be able to resist diseases and tolerate extremes of heat and cold. And they need to have a long shelf life, according to Scott.

"Sometimes I wonder why we even bother with flavor," Scott said in an interview last month in his office, a cramped space filled with all manner of tomato-related kitsch: tomato-shaped coffee mugs, framed antique tomato-crate labels, a vintage advertisement for Campbell's tomato soup, a dog-eared stack of Tomato Magazines. "There is no easy way to breed for taste. It's not like there's one genetic marker that tomatoes must have to taste good," he said.

Tomato flavor, Scott explained, is the result of the interplay of acids (primarily citric and malic), sugars and the ephemeral scents of 15 to 20 volatiles, the term for chemicals that can be smelled.

The structure of a tomato makes breeding for both taste and toughness a difficult balancing act. The gooey part of a tomato, called locular jelly, contains most of the all-important acidity, Scott said. The pericarp tissue, the walls of a tomato, give it strength and sweetness, but no acidity. The harder a tomato is, the blander it is likely to taste.

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