Why Tomatoes Suck (When They’re Not Awesome)

heirloom tomatoes

Bad tomatoes are everywhere. They’re the bland, wet layer on your $12 burger and the mealy red crescents in your otherwise sprightly salad. They’re on grocery store shelves puffed up like water balloons, and at your higher-end chains, they’re laquered scarlet and clustered on the end of a promising-looking vine. These tomatoes always taste like nothing, yet we eat them again and again.

You can place a large part of the blame on Florida. According to NPR’s report on the book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Florida produces 1/3 of the country’s tomatoes, and nearly all of the tomatoes grown in fall and winter. But the plants are grown in sand, with much less daylight in winter months, while farmers wage pesticidal war on bugs, mold, weeds, and whatever else festers in the year-round growing season (to the tune of eight times the amount of pesticides used by growers in California).  The result is a tomato coated with residual chemicals that is picked while green, artificially ripened, shipped long-distance, and arrives at stores looking perfectly red and unblemished.

Even if you remove Florida (and the awful working conditions on farms)  from a tomato’s lifespan, the unsullied appearance consumers supposedly love comes at a cost. The New York Times reported in June that researchers identified a gene mutation that’s been bred into nearly all commercially grown plants over the past 70 years. The mutation gives tomatoes a bright, uniform color and makes them easier to harvest in bulk, but has the unintended effect of deactivating genes that create sugar and carotenoids, which give tomatoes their flavor. Even though scientists can reactivate those genes, the Department of Agriculture doesn’t allow anyone to eat “experimental produce” so we don’t know how the engineered tomatoes would taste.

If you want the real thing, your best bet is to hit up a farmers market in July or August for locally-grown heirloom tomatoes, which don’t have the gene mutation and more closely resemble what a tomato used to taste like. These tomatoes are not the most attractive specimens–they’re knobby, creased, splotched, and sometimes bashed from being picked over by discerning tomato fanatics. But their flavor is an entirely different experience from the grocery store tomato—salty, sweet, tart, meaty and complex. You can eat one by itself like an apple or sliced up and sprinkled with a little bit of salt, and it’s pretty much the best fruit or vegetable you can imagine. I can’t fathom anyone eating a grocery store tomato by itself and enjoying it.

And that’s another reason why most tomatoes suck–they remind me of what I’m missing.

Heirloom tomatoes pictured are Brandywine and Purple Cherokee varieties from the Union Square Greenmarket, open Mon, Wed, Fri & Sat 8am-6pm