Thirty pounds of organic heirloom tomatoes is a whole lot of gorgeous tomatoes. I ordered them from the farm that supplies my weekly CSA (community supported agriculture) share and they showed up on my doorstep yesterday. The box was piled high with richly coloured fruit, a veritable rainbow of red, orange, yellow, purple, and even striped orbs that gleamed in the sunshine and begged to be eaten. In the evening, I started canning the tomatoes, which is an annual late-August ritual and a way to preserve a bit of summer for winter meals. I discovered that the tomatoes are as juicy as they are beautiful. Rivers of tomato juice streamed out of them as I worked, running off the cutting board and over the table. Thankfully I was working outside.
There is nothing quite like a real tomato, a tomato as it is meant to be grown and eaten. A tomato should have a fragile skin that is under pressure to contain the juice and seeds within, splitting open easily and explosively. It should almost dissolve as you eat it, filling your mouth with intensely refreshing flavour. You’d think I’m describing a fruit that’s altogether different from the tomatoes you purchase at the grocery store. Those belong in a different category, with pale pink flesh that’s dry, mealy, and dense. Finding one of those in a salad is more disappointing than exciting.
Tomatoes have been desecrated by the modern food industry. In order to ease exports, they have been bred to have tougher skins that won’t break as easily, to have higher yields, and to be uniform in shape, size, and colour. Moreover, every single tomato you see in a grocery store has been picked while it’s still green and less perishable, since that’s when it’s easiest to ship. The ripening process is then hastened using ethylene gas, which manages to turn the tomatoes red but can never recreate the effect of true sunlight, which gives tomatoes their intense flavour. So really, all you’re getting at the grocery store is the idea of a tomato, an ersatz tomato, instead of the actual thing.
There are many ethical and environmental reasons why fruits and vegetables should be eaten in season, but the most basic reason of all is the one I like the most: it’s when they taste best. After falling for the rich taste and texture of a tomato ripened by the late-summer sun, I’m fine with deferring all other tomatoes for the rest of year and waiting, with anticipation, for these few brief weeks when my kitchen overflows with a glut of tomatoes and I can eat my fill over and over again.