Behold the Vine-Ripened Tomato
By Bailey Thomson
I have heard there are people who have never tasted a tomato
from the vine. They know only the artificially ripened substitute that grocery
stores sell. Pity.
A sublime pleasure this time of year is to grace the table
or a sandwich with slices of garden-grown tomatoes. Upon the first bite,
the mouth tingles with the slightly tart taste, as juice bathes the palate.
We wait for weeks in anticipation of this experience, swearing off the ersatz
store-bought reds. Vine-ripened tomatoes signal the passage into summer,
when the heat rewards the gardenerís patience and work with fruit mellowing
against the green foliage.
The tomato actually is a berry, according to my sources.
It began its journey to our households centuries ago in the Andes.
The Spaniards found cultivated plants in Mexico
and brought them back to the Mediterranean, where
the tomato became the base for rich sauces. Gradually, tomatoes developed
into what we recognize today as fist-sized delicacies with smooth skin and
In the Old World, communities cultivated
special varieties. You can buy seeds of such heirloom plants and grow them
yourselves. They may produce yellow or pear-shaped fruit that is specially
suited for pastas or other culinary purposes. Most of us, however, get our
vine-ripened tomatoes from well-known hybrids that are household names.
Thus when the frost is finished and the ground begins to
warm, gardeners plant Better Boys and Big Beefs
and Celebrities and dozens of other varieties that have proven their growing
power. We sacrifice the distinctiveness of the heirlooms for the disease
resistance and productivity of the hybrids. I plant half a dozen varieties,
and they all load their branches with fruit that is, to me anyway, indistinguishable
in taste but consistent in quality.
English-speaking Europeans were slow to accept this gift
from the New World. They did not trust the tomato
plant, which too closely resembled the deadly nightshade for comfort. People
in the former English colonies did not begin to consume tomatoes until the
19th century. I suppose those early consumers were a bit like
the first people who ate oysters: Once they got past the first bite, the
adventure was all pleasure. By the centuryís end, however, enthusiasts were
turning out dozens of hybrids, often with distinctive regional names. For
example, Alabama offered the
Jeff Davis in honor of its former Confederate president. Moreover, canning
made tomatoes available to cooks year-round and brought us tomato soup.
George Washington Carver, the plant wizard of Tuskegee Institute, considered
tomatoes ideal for the Southís vitamin-starved poor people. But eating habits
can be difficult to change, especially in a region that fries even its bread.
The tomato became instead the star of middle-class gardens, and it remains
today the most popular vegetable. By one estimate, 35 million home gardens
in this country produce tomatoes. The plants grow in every region, though
sometimes with the assistance of green houses.
Meanwhile, the American appetite for tomatoes seems insatiable,
and fast food only accentuates the craving. Among my daughterís first words
were pickle, tomato and lettuce. Today she and her friends consume gallons
of tomato sauce from pizza. Sam Cox reports from Colorado
State that Americans eat on average
nearly 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes annually. The late Mr. Carver might be
pleased to know that the tomato is, pound for pound, our single most important
source of vitamins and minerals.
I like to go out into my garden late of an afternoon and
gently pick that eveningís table treat. A few gourds of squash usually are
available from the tomato plantsí prolific neighbors, and my okra has begun
to bear as well. A couple of bell peppers and a handful of the hotter varieties
top off the basket. Iíve already got the ground cleared for my fall peas,
and I may add some pole beans. And yes, I have younger tomato plants coming
along, too. Theyíll keep the family and friends supplied until frost.
Lately at night, Iíve been poring over seed catalogs. Iím
thinking about adding a few heirlooms next year: Yellow Pear. Black Krim. Old
Virginia and, most certainly, Mortgage Lifter. Now thereís a name
behind a story and a tribute to how much we prize this joy of the vine.