The tomatoes, they’re beautiful. Purple heirlooms, green zebra stripes, blobby and bumpy and smelling of earth. They’re here at last, and you can finally get your hands on them, and that, precisely, is the problem.
Call them the tomato touchers. They’re the people who go to the farmers market and handle every plump orb, squeezing and groping, feeling them carefully for firmness and flaws before deciding which one will make it into their next Caprese salad.
“The grass is greener on the other side of the fence,” said Eli Cook, owner of Spring Valley Farm & Orchard in Romney, W.Va. “They think if they pick through the whole pile, the one on the bottom is best.”
If it were potatoes or apples or cabbage? No problem. But heirloom tomatoes are as delicate as they are gorgeous, and the tomato touchers who are too rough are ruining it for the rest of us. They’re the reason Leigh Hauter, owner of Bull Run Mountain Farm in The Plains, Va., had to change the way his CSA share pickups worked.
Hauter used to let customers pick all their own produce. Now, when they come to a Dupont Circle parking lot to claim their shares, they can sort through the bins for their cucumbers, garlic, basil, eggplant and fennel — but when it’s time to collect their allotted five tomatoes for the week, they turn to Hauter, who retrieves them from flats in his van.
“I get a little bit huffy, and I probably lose some members because of that,” he said. If anyone points to a spot they don’t like on their tomatoes, he’ll throw in an extra. “The summer vegetables are a delicate piece of art.”
He used to lose 25 percent of his tomatoes to damage by customers. Now, he estimates he throws away only 2 percent due to overhandling.
The fact is, squeezing an heirloom tomato isn’t the best way to tell if it’s ripe, said Paul Mock of Mock’s Greenhouse and Farm in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
“When you catch the aroma much quicker or stronger, that’s an indication that it is a riper fruit,” he said. Also, the color: On the bottom of the tomato, “the darker it is, the riper it is.”
But if customers want to give them a squeeze, Mock will let them.
“As a business, as a marketing thing, what are you going to do?” he said. “I’ve seen farmers post signs: ‘Do not touch the tomatoes.’ Then they have to have their staff waiting on customers one-on-one. I, as a business, can’t afford to do that, so I leave them on the display table.”
Cook likes it when other vendors prohibit touching, because “it’s more [customers] that gravitate towards me,” he said. Breakage is part of the business: “If you want your tomatoes to go somewhere that they won’t be squeezed, get into the wholesale business.”
What is it about tomatoes that inspires such meticulousness in us? We sort through the Honeycrisps, or tap a few melons until we hear the best thunk. But heirloom tomatoes are so much better than the grocery store hybrids, and the window to get them is so small. And with all those tomatoes spread out on the table, there surely is an even juicier golden-crimson one in there for you. That one? No, that one. Try this one. (And you wonder why they cost $3.99 a pound.)
If farmers want fewer people to squeeze their tomatoes, one strategy may be to display less of their seasonal bounty. Psychologists have found that the more choices you give someone, the harder it is for them to make a decision — and they may even walk away empty-handed. One could see that principle in action at a recent Thursday in the Penn Quarter farmers market. Visitors to the Garner’s Produce stand, which had an impressive spread of five types of heirlooms, as well as canning tomatoes and a full rainbow of cherry tomatoes, picked up more than a dozen contenders in their quest for the perfect one.
“I’m a little bit of a weirdo. I pick them up in stores,” said Jillian Frederick, who lives in Mount Pleasant. She gently handled 15 tomatoes, putting each to her nose. The perfect tomatoes are “the pretty, vibrant ones that smell like they came off the vine,” she said.
Beauty has a lot to do with it. Customers go for “the perfect round ones, and when we sell out of those, we’ll sell the next prettiest,” said Dana Garner Boyle, manager of Garner’s. Even though many people who come to farmers markets are enlightened about the virtues of ugly produce and are drawn to the Rubenesque lopsidedness of heritage tomato breeds, they still dig around for the one that has the most perfect imperfections. Tomatoes left behind tend to be those that have cracks — which is common this year due to the rainy spring weather, the farmers say — or have the scabby spots known as catfacing.
Still, even in a pile of exemplary tomatoes like the ones at Garner’s, it was rare to see anyone buy the first one they touched. One woman touched 30 tomatoes before she purchased four. After the market had been open for an hour and a half, manager Jessica Pitts walked over to put damaged tomatoes in a discount bin.
But a hands-off policy can’t save all of the tomatoes. Some will inevitably be lost to weather, or over-ripening. And some are just so fragile that even the most perfectly cushioned, white-glove handling can’t prevent damage. It was something that Hauter was prepared to deal with as he packed up his leftover CSA vegetables in preparation for the one-hour drive back to his farm.
“These little yellow ones, they don’t hold up well in the heat,” he said, and shrugged. “I’ll feed these to the chickens.”