When the freeze-destroyed Florida's early tomato crop and drove up prices in the supermarket, it didn't trouble my life one whit. Long ago, my family quit eating those smooth, tough greenish-pink tennis balls packed in cardboard tubes that the industry persits in calling tomatoes.

Until the early part of the last century, tomatoes were widely believed to be poisonous. When grown at all, they were used merely for decoration. So today, after years of scientific manipulation by plant breeders and growers, the once-red juicy tomato is best used only for decoration, adding a touch of pale pink to green salad (on days that radishes aren't available).It's not poisonous, but it might as well be.

How modern economics brought us to this pass is mournful set down in the Jan. 24 issue of The New Yorker, under the title, "Reporter at Large: Tomatoes," Writer Thomas Whiteside, who paid a visit to the Florida tomato (sic) fields, explains not only why today's fruit is such a loss buy why the future looks, if anythings worse.

Florida growers vigorously dispute the notion that tomatoes don't taste the way they used to - in fact, they have studies to prove that taste and quality have not declined. Thousands of people continue to buy these imposter fruit. One might even say that, in true Darwinian fashion, we have bred a generation of consumers which expects a tomato to taste pallid or bitter, and has adapted its palate to suit.

Taste is not high on a grower's list of necessary virtues. Commercial tomato plants must yield heavily, resist disease, respond to pesticides, accept artificial ripening methods, look good on the outside, stand up to rough treatment, and sit for days on a self-service shelf without visible signs of deterioration. The tougher the better, from the industry point of view. How it tastes on the plat is the consumer's lookout.

Tomatoes imported from Mexico, while nearly as thick-skinned as their Florida counterparts, are at least allowed to turn a little pink on the vine before they're picked. (American growers have expended a lot of time and money to keep these "vine-ripened" tomatoes off the market.) Florida tomatoes, on the other hand, are picked green, still hard as baseballs (softened later ot tennis ball consistency), given a coat of wax to make them look pretty, then packed into a gas chamber.

That's how the fruit gets its pinkish hue - it's "degreened" (not "ripened") by ethylene gas. This is the same gas that turns tomatoes red naturally on the vine, but changing color is only one part of a far more complex process that makes the fruit good to eat. Vine-ripened fruit is high in sugars, for example, but tomatoes can't be sweetened prematurely with a quick shot of ethylene gas.

In order to make it out of the gas chamber with any taste all, a tomato has to be picked at a stage called "mature green".That is the point when the juice begins to jell. According to a booklet, "Towad Better Tomatoes," issued by the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, "tomatoes picked immature green may redden (under ethylene treatment), but will never be good to eat.

Whiteside reports that a large percentage of the Florida tomatoes picked for shipment are apt to be immature green - more than 40 per cent of one crop studied and 78 per cent of another. The head of the Florida Tomato Committee, displaying a dazzling mastery of Newspeak, observed that those tomatoes were "mature according to (industry) standards," though not "as mature as would be required to supply to consumers with a quality product."