The Fat of the Land

Month: August, 2012

Tasting Tomatoes

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As a culture, we have been led astray. Duped by a trick of the eye, assured by the empty satisfaction of conformity, we have cashed in one of our most diverse and alluring plant foods for the color red. You know it—that bright orangey scarlet sold in “vine ripened” clusters or stacked into pyramids on produce shelves, nearly uniform in size and certainly so in disappointing flavor. We see that color January through December, sliced onto hamburgers, wedged on the side of a salad plate, chopped into pasta dishes, offering nothing but its predictable hue.

If we were solely to look at tomatoes, as most Europeans did upon their introduction to the Continent in the late 16th century, color would be enough. Known in Britain first as an ornamental plant called “love apples,” tomatoes were not actually eaten by the English until the 19th century, a trend that was mirrored in their American Colonies. It seems a preference for appearance never left our cultural unconscious, and when a genetic mutation causing uniform ripeness appeared before tomato breeders of the 1940’s, the tomato industry jumped on it. It promised what consumers had long been sifting through the produce baskets for: a tomato that was red all over.

Before the mutation was discovered, grocery store tomatoes were wilder-looking things. Pre-mutation tomatoes ripen from the blossom end to the stem end, leaving a ring of green, white or yellow near the stem while the rest of the fruit is ready be eaten. So visually oriented we are about what we eat, this slight anomaly is enough to throw us off even when flavor begs to differ. Those weighty, monstrous-looking heirlooms hanging right now in your veggie patch and mine are guilty of uneven ripening, too, though their unusual shapes and colors pose other hurdles to consumers in search of tomatoes as we think they should be.

A new study on the tomato color/flavor dynamic, as reported by the New York Times this June, claims that the visual mold we have pressed upon the tomato may be at fault for its blandness. It seems the genetic mutation that gives tomatoes even ripeness also affects flavor and aroma development because the same genes are involved in both processes. Tomatoes that ripen unevenly, by contrast, are able to produce more of their own sugars and other flavor components, rather than just getting these from the leaves as the mutated fruits do, resulting in a fuller, sweeter taste.

Indeed, tomatoes have over four hundred identified flavor components, at least thirty of which create flavor experiences our coarse tasting instruments can register. Tomatoes that make us swoon involve a combination of flavor and aroma that mingles as we chomp. Even the acts of slicing and chewing release enzymes that unlock flavor, as do the enzymes in our saliva. Tomato color only hints at the operatic complexity of its flavor potential.

Though we have managed the science needed to grow and distribute tomatoes year-round, we have disregarded the flavor motivation to make them worth eating. In its place, we have nurtured a motivation for color. If a tomato is red, we are happy. It fulfills our expectation and fits our conception of the role tomatoes play in the food we want to eat and cook. This sense of accordance has overridden our taste buds for going on seventy years.

The spell was broken for me about six years ago, when the seasonal food movement was just beginning to infiltrate the awareness of non-gardening city dwellers like I was at the time. I had never heard of such a thing as only eating tomatoes in season. In fact, I was just coming around to the tomato at all, a vegetable that had been a childhood nemesis. For the sake of experiment, I gorged for the summer on a whole range of colors and sizes from the farmers’ market just a few blocks away, entranced by their marvelous diversity, and when they went away with the first October frosts, I felt a sense of loss. So, in winter I was fooled (more than once) by the “vine ripened” hothouse tomatoes splashing red into the corners of my eyes, promising sweet, acidic deliciousness. On that promise, they never delivered.

Now I wait. Each year a moment comes that is worth the effort, that overrides any sense of loss. When I break my tomato fast with that first warm-from-the-vine slice sprinkled in sea salt, my taste buds sing in praise of my diligence: a tomato as it should be.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, August 23, 2012)

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Preservation

It seems common enough to label as a human trait, this tradition of saving. We work now, growing, gathering and processing, so that we may have some for later. Our preservations take many forms: fish sun-dried on racks by the sea, berries pounded and packed into cracker-like cakes, tea leaves pressed into bricks and carried across mountains, dense breads baked with a hole in the center to hang in wait for hungrier times. Pickles, jams, chutneys, and ferments.  Our species has invented myriad ways to extend the given lives of our food sources.

Despite having the unfathomable luxury of store shelves lined with all the food we need all year round, some of the arts of preservation are making a comeback. Home canning in particular has become an entry point for many first-time preservers. The simplicity and low cost of water bath processing make it highly accessible to anyone with a stovetop.  Throw in a garden, and you have the sort of plenty that practically begs to be put by.

But the prospect is not without its intimidations. The fear of contaminations such as botulism is a powerful deterrent.  Even though canning doesn’t demand much in the way of equipment (if you already have a large stock pot, the cost would be under $20 for the basics), it does require some, and a mild amount of initiative to gather it. But most of all, I think it is the unknown that keeps us away, especially those who didn’t grow up watching their mothers and grandmothers can. Those who did perhaps know too much: it’s a heck of a lot of work.

I helped my father can peaches six years ago and have been canning on my own ever since. Once I saw how basic the process is, I began to use it as a template for kitchen creativity: make some new ingenious thing once, eat it all year. I have canned a few delicious things, though most, especially at the beginning, were mediocre. This is in part because, despite what I am about to declare to you, I didn’t always use a recipe. I got lucky in that the liberties I took didn’t result in deadly pathogens growing undetected in my food.

So, I will tell you from the position of a reformed improviser, canning is not a place for throwing things together any more than baking is. The success of both is based on scientific ratios: one results in pathogen-free food, the other in leavening.  The easiest way to get the science right is to follow a recipe. And not just any recipe. Since this is science, I recommend learning from the scientists. The USDA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation has a very informative (and free) online publication detailing what is appropriate to can using the water bath method and how to do it safely, along with a good assortment of recipes. This is the place I wish I had started: http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html. Once you have mastered the science, you may begin improvising.

The other thing I learned over time is that canning is never less work and not always less money than buying canned foods at the store. It takes time, and usually not when you have it. I recall many late summer nights boiling a large kettle of water for hours in my un-air-conditioned apartment, sweating and cursing the moment I decided to “do a little canning tonight.” Luckily, the bitterness of our toil does not flavor our food. The effort is entirely forgiven with that first bite of summer tomato sauce in the heart of January. For me, the effort fades the moment I lift the jars out of their boiling bath onto the kitchen counter. The clean, glossy look of them, holding my winter stash of summer fruits so attractively, gives me a sense of satisfaction that cancels out the hours of sleep I have lost to create them.

Ultimately, the payoff is the superior food you can put in the pantry. Homegrown foods properly processed in the home kitchen can lead to gourmet quality, highly nutritious additions to your larder. Though I do not have the pressing need to fill a late winter hunger gap they way my ancestors did only a few generations back, I process treasures from my garden and the market to fill what I see as an entertainment gap. In late winter, when I am dallying in the sure and steady land of roots, beans and hardy greens, I pop open a jar of peaches that taste like sunshine and feel a sense of wealth truer than all the canned peaches on all the shelves of all the world’s stores combined.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine,August 9, 2012)