Shelf Life

The story behind tomatoes in the U.S.

Marketplace Staff Apr 1, 2010
Shelf Life

The story behind tomatoes in the U.S.

Marketplace Staff Apr 1, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Consider for just a moment the tomato. A good one brings with it the very essence of summertime. A bad one can wreck an otherwise fabulous meal. Arthur Allen has spent the last couple of years in search of the perfect tomato. It’s a tale he tells in his new book “Ripe.” Since a studio interview about this seemed, well, kind of boring, we met up at the Pershing Square Farmers Market, just a couple of blocks from Marketplace World Headquarters here in downtown L.A. And then we went tomato shopping.

Arthur Allen: Excuse me where are these from, these tomatoes? Do you know what varieties they are? What they’re called?

Ryssdal: All right, so we have these tomatoes we just bought. They’re tomatoes that we see in the supermarket every day, tomatoes on the vine. What can you tell me just by looking at these guys?

ALLEN: Well, they’re smaller than sort of the traditional tomato, which means they’re bred to be smaller because usually you get more flavor out of a smaller tomato. They have just by pulling on them, I can tell, the tomato doesn’t come off the vine easily. And the reason they do that, I mean it’s convenient for picking them. You slice off a bunch of them. And also when you have this hole closed, you lose fewer of the volatiles, and the volatiles are the smell, and that’s an incredibly important part of a really good tomato experience.

Ryssdal: What is it about Americans and tomatoes? It’s sort of the quintessential thing, you know, that search for the good tomato in this country.

ALLEN: Yeah, because it’s a symbol of everything that we think that we’ve lost, right? So we think tomatoes used to be better, they were always better, and now when you go to a supermarket you can’t get a good tomato. You know, nobody’s tomatoes are like the ones I had in Greece, or Thailand…

Ryssdal: Or when I was a kid.

ALLEN: Or when I was a kid. Or in Jersey.

Ryssdal: I don’t know. Jersey tomatoes? I don’t know.

ALLEN: Yeah, Jersey tomatoes. There are so many people that swear by Jersey tomatoes.

Ryssdal: Just to be clear, the tomatoes that we see here in the farmers market, and the tomatoes that we see in the supermarket, even the hot house ones that aren’t those heirlooms and really great looking ones, that is not the majority of the tomato crop in this country. Most of it is bundled and packed off and shipped on off to tomato paste creators, right?

ALLEN: Close to two-thirds of all the tomatoes that are grown commercially in the United States are harvested with machines. They have thick skins, they ripen all at once, and you can watch these harvesters pick them. They pick about a ton of tomatoes in about 20 seconds. They go on to these big gondolas, and they get shipped right to a cannery and turned into a paste within a couple of hours. So they’re actually made into paste, they’re very fresh right from the field. And then they can be stored in these bins, which keep out contaminants for two years.

Ryssdal: That makes that can of Prego sauce all the less appealing really when you know that backstory.

ALLEN: It does. It makes it less appealing aesthetically. And what I explored a lot in this book is sort of what’s the difference between what’s aesthetically pleasing, sort of our idea of what a good tomato is, and what’s actually a good tomato in terms of nutrition and things like this. And what’s interesting is the paste that goes into the Prego tomato sauce, there’s science that shows that you’re more likely to get the lycopene benefits from that paste…

Ryssdal: That is the good stuff, right?

ALLEN: Yeah. The good stuff. The antioxidants. You get more of them from a slice of pizza than you’re going to get from eating a couple of these tomatoes.

Ryssdal: So if I take a bite out of this thing, and it’s good. But you know what my first thought is? It needs a little salt. It needs something on it. It’s rare to find a tomato that you can just eat and have it be in and of itself a thing you want to eat more of.

ALLEN: Absolutely. And I mean that’s the point of all these people who have done all these things to convert tomatoes into something that’s bred more for production than for flavor. In the end, the basic tomato flavor is what you need. The rest of it is going to come from salt, and pepper, and your oregano, and the mozzarella cheese you serve it with. And I think there’s a lot to that. I mean, in my book, a tomato needs friends.

Ryssdal: Arthur Allen. His book is called “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato.” Arthur, thanks a lot.

ALLEN: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure… See this is really bland.

Ryssdal: Oh yeah, it’s horribly bland.

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