Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Great Tomato Trek--Allen Discusses His (and an Industry's) Search for Flavor (We're Hosting Him on Sunday, July 25th, 2 PM)

You would never call me a gardener. This is true, despite having a father who devoted much of his free time to planting flowers and vegetables. We’d sometimes be overrun with zucchini and cucumbers; peppers were notoriously fickle. But the heart and soul of his garden, as it was for most backyard growers, were his tomatoes.

He kept several varieties, growing the seedlings in our basement with special lights until it was warm enough to plant outside. When he harvested, he kept them along all our window sills, never refrigerating them until he cut one open.

For months at a time, he ate a salad every meal, one that was flush with the fruit (or vegetable, depending on the way you define the plant) of his labors. For a short time each year, tomatoes would be my parents’ housewarming gift of choice, and they went out of their way to warm a lot of houses.

We expect the tomatoes we see in stores to reflect that experience, though we know in our heads that this is not really the case, as much as Elsie the Cow who provided our milk is not likely wearing pearls. Heinz ketchup’s label says “Grown, not made”, even as Heinz has gotten out of the tomato farming business, ceding it to processors such as Morning Glory.

It doesn’t even really occur to me that the tomato bound for ketchup or juice or sauce has a far different journey than one meant for the produce aisle. It turns out, according to Arthur Allen’s Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, that not only is the journey very different than it once was, it can be different depending on whether you live on the east or west coast.

Journalist Arthur Allen explores the changes in tomato growing and processing that have led to portability and size at the expense of flavor. He’s not really averse to mechanization or grower concentration. He just wants answers, traveling the world to look at Italy’s branding of faux San Marzano tomatoes, or the huge growth of tomato growing and processing in China, despite a decided lack of interest among Chinese consumers. And then there’s the United States, where Florida cleaves to its market of gassed greens, despite inroads among “rin” (bred for slow growth) tomatoes in Mexico and greenhouse varieties from Canada.

At one point, Allen gets his hands dirty, spending a day picking tomatoes with a crew in Florida. It’s backbreaking work for very little money, but the crew is happy he’s there, as they figure there won’t be any abusive behavior that day. This gives weight to the labor struggles to increase the payment by fast food companies of a penny a pound to go to working conditions. The same kind of labor unrest on the west coast, however, quickly led to mechanization, not reform.

Allen is not much interested in the surge of interest in heirloom varietals. Yes, a bit contrarian, he feels they are overrated. Ripe isn't exactly an exposé, a la Fast Food Nation, nor does it necesssarily work as a business manual. It's sort of an intellectual journey with numerous detours, of course.

As for organics, Allen mostly quotes the growers, who think it’s a crock of manure, perhaps the very manure that substitutes for chemicals. On the other side stands Kanti Rawal, the dreamer, a self-described anarchist who had hopes of processing yellow tomatoes into golden ketchups, sauces, and salsas.

Allen is at his most fascinating when exploring the flavor profile of the tomato. So much of the bouquet of a fine tomato is multiple flavors working in tandem; alone, they can be downright unpleasant. And who knew that one of the most pleasing aromas comes from the vine, which is why there’s been enormous growth in the tomatoes-on-the-vine business.

There’s lot more where that came from, and you can hear about it for yourself when we host Arthur Allen on Sunday, July 25th, at 2 PM, in conjunction with our green market, which runs from 2 to 6 PM on Sundays.

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