Ever wonder why it is that those perfect looking but totally flavorless supermarket tomatoes kind of… suck? Well, you're not alone. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit is a new book by Barry Estabrook that explores the tragic demise of what, at its finest, may be the most incredible tasting and versatile fruit, and at its worst, a despicable, mealy outrage. So what exactly happened to the tomato, anyway?
You might remember that the very first genetically-modified food commercially sold in the U.S. was back in 1994. It was the Flavr Savr tomato (created by the biotechnology company Calgene). Designed to fully ripen while on the vine and stay firmer with a longer shelf life than regular tomatoes, it eventually was phased out of the market in 1997. (Though often rumored, there has never been a commercially sold tomato with fish genes in it, despite one bred with genes of an arctic fish in the early 1990s—the experiment was actually unsuccessful and never made it into distribution.)
What's most likely the cause of poor quality tomatoes is actually demand for our favorite fruits and veggies year-round. This out-of-season-eating puts pressure on farmers in regions like Florida, where the warm weather is conducive to growing, but the humid climate and soil are actually not at all ideal for tomatoes. The less than perfect climates lead to excess use of pesticides and fertilizers, says Estabrook, and that, compromises flavor, especially when grown out of season. It's why your summer yard-grown heirloom tomatoes taste a million times better.
Tomatoes have also been bred for higher yields and durability—or in other words, quantity, not quality. Farmers may have less spoilage and healthy looking crops, but that says nothing about what happens once the tomato enters your mouth. And although we know this instinctively as we stare at the stack in the grocery store—longing for the ripe juiciness of a perfect tomato—we scoop them up anyway in the dead of winter in hopes that a good one somehow survived and we were lucky to have it sneak into our shopping cart.
Your best bet? If you haven't already noticed the difference, ripe tomatoes are a summer fruit (Yes, fruit! Seeds on the inside!), so that's when you should be eating the fresh ones. Buy or harvest your garden growns in July and August, and freeze or can them for use in the winter. But come December, what's sitting in the supermarket is most likely exhausted from its long trip, and like any weary traveler out of her element, not nearly as fresh as when closest to home.
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