16 August 2010

5 Questions For Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen traveled the world tracking, researching and tasting the enigmatic tomato: A botanical fruit that is bought, sold and cooked as vegetable. His book about this Tomatoquest, Ripe, is so much more than Eat, Love, Pomodoro – it is outward looking – touching on biology, anthropology, genetics, economics, history, evolution all the while being witty, informative and entertaining.

Ripe, Arthur Allen

Although, he claims no one grows a tomato like Doug Gosling of Occidental, California; Mr. Allen lives far away from the Pacific, close to the nation’s Capitol where he has been known to hunt for tomatoes at New Morning Farms Farmers Markets found at various locations around Washington DC.

Multiple Choice*: The tomato’s wild ancestor is comparable in size to a

a) currant

b) cherry

c) baseball

*Extra Credit for explaining your answer

a and b.

Extra credit: size doesn’t matter that much in tomatoes. From the human perspective it’s a big deal, obviously, but from the plant genetics perspective it’s probably a matter of one genetic “miscue” or “sport.” One gene that has been identified in tomato size is a regulatory gene that in humans causes unregulated cell growth. That is, in humans it causes cancer, in tomatoes it causes a big, juicy tomato. Ain’t biology great? We share so much in common, even with our vegetable friends.

This is a long-winded way of explaining that while the direct South American ancestor of our table tomato is the size of a cherry, there no doubt have been large tomatoes in the wild from time to time as well. However they presumably did not do as good a job as their cherry cousins at propagating. In the wild, tomato seeds spread by being consumed by birds and other animals, which presumably gives a survivability advantage to smaller tomatoes. We’re talking about real tomatoes, i.e. Lycopersicon esculentum. The classical currant-sized tomato is a related variety, Lycopersicon esculentum var. pimpinellifolium.

I feel like a Market heretic for saying this, but for flavor, I like the decidedly unheirloom early girl tomato; particularly the Dirty Girls (a commercial branded tomato that is finished by choking off its water supply before harvesting). One of our growers wrote she loves heirlooms because of their diversity and that saving seeds makes her less dependent on seed companies, I agree so much that swing over to the side of heirlooms. Are my tastebuds or my emotions correct here?

Well, there’s a lot to be said about this issue. A whole lot (i.e., buy my book!) First, there’s an important concept to be kept in mind and that is this: when it comes to commercial farming, in general, the interests of the tomato farmer and the tomato consumer diverge. This is because the farmer gets paid for the weight of his tomatoes as measured in the packing shed after sorting. So he wants as many firm (non spoiled), big tomatoes as possible, and he wants them to grow thickly clustered together on a vine. Labor costs are lower for big, high-yielding tomatoes–cuz a worker can pick more big tomatoes than little ones, and commercial breeders have developed big tomato types that will fruit like crazy when you pump their soil full of fertilizers. Unfortunately, big tomatoes, especially big transportable (i.e. firm) tomatoes are often the enemy of flavor. They tend to be water bags–more water, less flavor, and there’s also a rule of thumb in that higher yielding plants mean less flavorful tomatoes, because there is only so much sugar that a given tomato leaf can photosynthesize. Also, big commercial tomato operations usually pick their tomatoes green or pink, and as we all know even when they are artificially ripened with a jolt of ethylene, such tomatoes don’t develop the full range of tomato flavors once plucked off the vine. Heirloom tomatoes tend to be lower yielding. Ergo, one can expect them to have more if not better flavor.

OK, so that’s the size and yield-v. flavor issue. The second issue concerns “diversity”–and this is where some foodies lose their way. There is probably a lot less genetic diversity in a basket of wildly colorful heirlooms than there is a small bowl of different hybrids. Tomato breeders over the decades have scanned the globe to find genetic material from all kinds of cultivated and wild tomatoes, as well as wild cousins of the tomato. Usually they have done this to “improve” the tomato from a commercial perspective. Since a lot of what has been bred into tomatoes does little to make them taste better or even makes them taste worse, we consumers have confused the issues of diversity and quality. Usually, heirlooms have pretty good taste quality–that’s why they’ve stuck around as long as they have. They lack certain qualities that make for a good commercial tomato: they have thinner skins, weird shapes that add to their susceptibility to a variety of fungi, bacteria, viruses etc–[see last year’s late blight tomato catastrophe for an example.] Such “weaknesses” have been bred out of many hybrids.

But just because your typical hybrid tomato–say, the Florida varieties that appear in the Safeway during winter–lack good flavor does not mean that flavor can’t be bred into them. Sun Gold, anyone? That’s a consistently reliable hybrid. Or the hybrids grown in Baja California that are sold by DelCabo Farms. Consistently delicious. You may have noticed that those tasty varieties are cherries. This is because it’s easier to produce a high-brix (which means, more or less, high-sugar) cherry tomato that still has some flavor when the consumer buys it a week or two after it was picked. And yet, it’s not impossible to produce a good-tasting, large, even transportable hybrid. John “Jay” Scott, a Univeristy of Florida breeder, has developed a truly marvelous variety called the Tasti-Lee that we’ll be seeing on store shelves soon with any luck. And in my view, some of the greenhouse varieties aren’t bad. The mid-sized Campari, for example, has consistently decent flavor during the winter–not out-of-this-world good, but what do you expect in the winter?

In your book, Ripe, you touch on the theme that tomatoes are simultaneously held as an example of industrial agriculture gone wrong – a system that produces flavorless, rock hard fruits of the vine…Yet people love their tomatoes cooked, especially with other flavors. How is it tomatoes are the symbol for the life idyllic when collectively, we seem to prefer them out of a bottle, can or in a sauce?

Excellent question. Most people don’t want to eat raw tomatoes in great quantity. In general, the tomato needs friends–even if you are eating them raw, you’ll tend to sprinkle them with oil and a bit of salt, some oregano or basil, etc. The great cuisines of the world use the cooked tomato. Yet even the finest tomatoes lose a lot of their flavors when cooked (although they don’t lose their sweetness if they are especially sweet varieties). So when making cooked sauces, truth be told, it doesn’t pay to be too picky about the raw material. (Although you do want a tomato with high brix for the ideal sauce–the Italians add sugar to their sauces).

People are often unaware that the tomato industry is really two industries–the table tomato business and the “processing” tomato industry. We’ve all learned to groan at the winter tomato of Florida and Mexico, picked green, gassed and, as sold at the supermarket, scarcely resembling the tomato of our golden summer youth. The table tomato is one of the most labor-intensive pieces of agriculture I know about.

The processing tomato, on the other hand, is incredibly mechanized. Machines plant the seeds in greenhouses, plant the seedlings in the spring, and harvest the tomatoes three months later. But the tomatoes are fully ripe when harvested and are turned into canned tomatoes, or concentrated tomato paste, within a couple of hours of being picked. They are “canned fresh.” The biggest tomato company in the world, Morningstar of Woodland, Ca., produces something like 10 percent of the world’s tomato paste for sauces. It has about 200 employees.  They produce an incredibly cheap, nutritious product that gets turned into pizza sauces, spaghetti sauces, salsa etc. And frankly, you can do almost anything with that raw paste it if you know which ingredients to add. Some argue, with justification, that tomato sauces made from concentrated paste (i.e. Ragu, Paul Newman’s Own etc.) are not as good as sauces made directly from tomatoes. But the difference is slight.

This tiny fruit originally from the Andes mountains is a multi-billion a year crop in the States, synonymous with Italian cuisine and as salsa is on the receiving end of millions of corn chips. How did the tomato conquer the world, who were the first great breeders and lovers of the tomato?

The vast genetic diversity of the tomato is located on the western slope of the Andes in South America. Archaeologists and tomato nuts have searched for years for evidence that the Inca or other pre-Colombian South Americans cultivated the tomato. Yet while they no doubt ate wild tomatoes there’s no evidence the Inca and their brethren cultivated these plants. There are no pre-Hispanic words for the tomato in South American languages. Somehow, some of these tomatoes migrated north to Central America and Mexico, and it must have been some millennia ago, because almost every tribe, down to the smallest, in Mexico, has its own name for the tomato. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they found dozens of varieties, though sadly we’ll probably never know exactly what some of them were.

Tell us your favorite kind of tomato and how you like to eat it.

My favorite tomato experience is to gather a basketful on the farm of a really good tomato grower, someone like my brother’s friend Doug Gosling in Sonoma County, or from the test gardens of my friend Kanti Rawal, then cook up a tremendous sauce using nothing more than a few onions and carrots and a couple herbs–and maybe a zucchini and green pepper or two thrown in for superstitious nutritional reasons. The sweetness of a delicious sauce made from scratch is heaven to me.