Tasting Tomatoes

by Sarah West


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)