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Bread And Butter: Gather Tomatoes While Ye May

A pile of red tomatoes.

A few years ago I was dejectedly strolling a salad bar on the campus, despairing at the mini-bucket of flavorless, waxy tomato slices on offer. It was October, just past garden season, and I was still experiencing severe harvest withdrawal. As you’ve probably tasted, store-bought hydroponic winter tomatoes are only a distant cousin to the garden variety.


Home-grown tomatoes are red, for instance (most of them) -- a deep soul-satisfying ruby from their pulpy interior to their thin skin. And they are juicy. They tast more than just sweet. Over a delicate sweetness, they taste savory like a mushroom or a steak is savory, a flavor known as umami.


But hydroponic tomatoes have the indisputable advantage of being available all winter long. They look like tomatoes. You could say they taste like tomatoes … in the same way that a strawberry sucker tastes like a strawberry or a banana scratch-and-sniff sticker smells like a banana. I would call them an approximation of a tomato.


Back at the salad bar, I muttered to myself. “After garden tomatoes, you just can’t go back.”


A man behind me in the line-- one of those analytical thinkers you often find on university campuses, the kind that excels at sudoku thinking, and tend to miss euphemism -- tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You actually can go back.”


Ok dude, there was nothing physically preventing me from eating those hydroponic tomatoes. True. But with the recent sunny memory of garden tomatoes like Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Big Boy, Sun Sugar, and Yellow Pear, I don’t WANT to.


Good tomato flavor is a complex combination of natural sugars, acids and gasses we experience as smell. It also depends on plant and growth factors like breeding and temperature. Greenhouse tomatoes don't get as much UV light as tomatoes in the field, which means that the more direct sun a tomato gets, the better and sweeter it will taste. Too much water can also dilute the flavor.


Greenhouses are expensive, and farmers need to produce a lot of crop to offset the cost of the building. Flavor sometimes gets sacrificed for high yield and ripening time, as it also often does in the production of commercial field-grown tomatoes. Plus, many mass-produced fruits are harvested before peak ripeness so they keep their underripe toughness for the long-distance trip to the supermarket shelf.


So the point is, enjoy them while you can. Tomatoes are ridiculously easy to grow, and hard to reproduce in a quality way on an industrial scale. Summer tomatoes are one of those things that modern technology can’t seem to improve or replicate, but any normal Joe can access anyway.


Eat them on toast, sprinkled with a little bit of salt and pepper. Eat them with mozzarella, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and flecked with masticated basil. Eat them like an apple, leaning over the sink to catch the inevitable dribble or sitting in the garden with the ladybugs and daddy-long-legs as company. But eat them now, because October will be too late.