Tomatoes are bred for bounce. On commercial farms they are grown to be survivors, tough of skin and firm to the touch, magnetic in their color and symmetrical enough in their shape to make a tidy BLT. Shipping quality and shelf life are the highest aspirations of today's tomato.
Gus Shumacher, Massachusetts' commissioner of agriculture, has a revolutionary idea. He thinks they should be bred to taste good.
Thus he held a Massachusetts-wide tomato tasting earlier this month, with juicy little samples from commercial farms flown into Lawrence, north of Boston, from as far as Martha's Vineyard and western Massachusetts. A yellow striped tent was set up in Lawrence's Heritage State Park -- one of seven urban parks Massachusetts has recently developed -- down the street from the Lawrence Farmers' Market, one of six new farm markets in the state this year.
The park, the market and the tomato tasting represented another little revolutionary idea, cooperative ventures of several state departments: Food and Agriculture, Commerce, Environmental Management, Community Development, Human Services, and the state's Main Street Program. The Department of Transportation chipped in with ads on the subways for the farm markets.
Judges for the tasting -- a mix of teachers from local agriculture schools, two chefs, a supermarket owner, a farmer and several food editors (me among them) -- were equipped with scoring sheets (taste accounted for 60 percent of the possible points), tomato-red pens and serrated knives. We examined, probed, cut and bit into stacks of tomatoes from 48 different growers, more than half of them commercial farms judged separately from home gardens. And while there was not much agreement as to the specific winners, a good tomato was a good tomato to all of us, and the best-looking didn't necessarily win the taste test.
After everyone was saturated with tomatoes the guests dug into a buffet, prepared by a local restaurant named Metamorphosis, of Massachusetts products -- marinated mussels, corn on the cob, roast turkey and fruit salad, finished off with Massachusetts gouda cheese and washed down with Massachusetts fruit wines made of apples, pears, blueberries, peaches and cranberries.
The point of the Department of Agriculture's new programs is to bring fresh food and people closer together. Along those lines the agency is issuing small grants to restaurants to redo their menus using local products. In fact, several of us went later to Jaspar's restaurant in Boston to try the first day of the new fall menu, for which half the food is grown in Massachusetts. Schumacher himself refuses to attend any dinners or events where the food is not largely locally grown.
As for the remaining tomatoes, they were delivered to food pantries and soup kitchens where food is distributed free to the needy. In a program called Farmers Feeding People, the Department of Agriculture has organized farmers to contribute unsold produce to food distribution centers; Quincy Farmers' Market thus contributed 1,127 pounds of fresh produce plus 40 dozen ears of corn in just four market afternoons in August. And at the tomato tasting a foundation grant was announced to allow the food distribution centers to buy even more produce wholesale from the farmers.
The point of it all, says Schumacher, is to raise people's expectations of what food will taste like. His goal is to have more people growing good food, to put less time and distance between that food and those who eat it, and make it possible for more people to eat good food. Tabletalk
*The priciest whisk on earth may well be declared on Oct. 3, when property from the estate of James Beard will be auctioned off by William Doyle Galleries in Manhattan. The whisk in question is a huge one, with a mammoth copper bowl proportioned to Beard's size; along with a favorite pair of funnels and copper skimming spoon, the set is estimated at $300 to $500. This is a poignant event for food enthusiasts, with irresistible memorabilia from autographed cookbooks to Beard's famous bow ties.
*Hollywood and China have come to New York by way of Paris, as Chez Vong, a chic Parisian-Chinese restaurant described as having a Hollywood decor, opened in Manhattan this month. Also new in Manhattan is Bud's restaurant, the second to be opened by Jonathan Waxman, formerly of Michael's restaurant in Los Angeles, and currently of Jams restaurant in New York City. So what's left in Los Angeles? The City Restaurant, which refers to itself as the "City Cafe transmogrified." It's the work of Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, who first opened the City Cafe, turned that into the Border Grill and have been hot stuff -- in their culinary style as well as in their popularity -- from the beginning. You'll hear more of them.
*It may be taking candy from babies, but it is also the answer to mothers' prayers. Giant Food stores are experimenting with removing candy from checkout aisles -- only one aisle in each store, but it's a start. The experimental aisle will display magazines and general merchandise such as batteries instead of confections. Now mothers can quiet their children with Jack and Jill rather than Baby Ruth. WILSON FARM TOMATO CASSEROLE (6 servings)
One of the most popular and prolific farm markets anywhere is Wilson's in Lexington, Mass. Lynne C. Wilson has just published "The Wilson Farm Country Cookbook" (Addison-Wesley, 1985. $17.95 hardcover, $9.95 paperback), putting between covers the decades of recipes she has developed for her customers and family to use. This is one of her favorite tomato recipes because it can be prepared early in the day and baked just before serving.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds ripe tomatoes (4 or 5 medium)
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
2/3 cup chopped green pepper
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Peel and slice the tomatoes 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick
Melt butter in a small frying pan. Add pepper and onion and saute' over medium heat until soft but not brown. Remove from the heat and stir in the crumbs, salt and pepper.
Place the tomato slices and crumb mixture in a buttered 1 1/2-quart casserole in three or four layers, starting with the tomatoes and ending with the crumbs.
Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft and the crumbs brown.