A Tale of Two Tomatoes

by Elizabeth on March 11, 2012

tomato basket photo by jacki-dee @ flickr

Ever wonder why a tomato from a garden tastes different than one from a store?

I mean, really…they’re both tomatoes.  Depending on where the seeds came from, they might even be the same variety/hybrid/breed.  They look the same, for the most part, and you can’t get much more simple than a tomato.

To-may-to, to-mah-to.  Same diff.

So why does one have more flavor and color, and, frankly, just ends up being better?

If you have a tomato plant in your garden, you walk twenty feet (or bike the few miles to the community garden, whatevs), and you pick a ripened, red tomato straight off the vine.  You might wash it, if you’re the picky type that doesn’t like to eat rogue pollens or bits of dirt, but for the most part, you pick it, you eat it.  The cycle is short.  Pick.  Eat.  Yum.  That’s it.

With a store-bought tomato, the process isn’t quite so simple.  Depending on where you’re shopping (some local stores are, obviously, closer in this cycle than others), that kind of mealy, pinky-red tomato has already been through a bit of trauma.

The grower grows the tomatoes.  Usually, (and especially for out-of-season tomatoes), that’s in a greenhouse that’s cranking out produce as fast as it can go.  Unless it’s organically grown, there are probably a host of chemical fertilizers and strange hybridizations that have to take place in order to get that tomato plant to produce, since it’s not growing where it’s meant to be grown.  The tomato is picked en masse with a bunch of other tomatoes, while they’re just barely able to survive off the vine.  (In other words, they’re green.)  They’re then treated with gasses to force them to ripen artificially, packed into boxes and trucks, carted to even more trucks that deliver them to a distributor, who loads them onto...you guessed it…more trucks that take them from the distributor to your local store.  If you’re buying tomatoes at Wal-Mart, for instance, there may be even more steps involved, usually involving putting the green tomatoes on a steamer ship from China (no joke), and then loading them on the trucks once they’ve travelled literally half-way around the world.

On the best of days, in the best of circumstances, you’re looking at about a week from the date of premature picking to the time it arrives at your local chain store.  Sometimes, it’s much, much longer.  Normal produce, like the theoretical tomato we talked about first, from your garden, wouldn’t last that long, even if you picked it green and crossed your fingers that it’d ripen the rest of the way.  So the food companies are constantly on the lookout for ways to hybridize that tomato plant to produce fruit that lasts even longer than it currently does.

The reason your store-bought tomato tastes kind of old and sad compared to the one from your garden is simple:  It is old and sad compared to the one from your garden.  They aren’t as much “tomatoes” as a “tomato-shaped object” with the idea of a tomato.

Let’s be frank, here:  there are problems with this system.

I’d wager that every one of us, myself included, has bought a tomato at the grocery store before.  (If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be able to tell you with any authority that they’re kind of mealy and gross in comparison, in fact.)  Life is busy, people.  Moreover, most of us live in climates where there are growing seasons.  (I’d wager that, too, is all of us.)  There are times of the year where, if you want a tomato on your salad, you have two choices:

1.  Buy one at the store, or,

2.  Go without.

Every time you buy one at the store, though, think about this:

Not only, in most cases, are you buying substandard produce that’s been treated with Ethylene gas to make it more visually appealing, you’re also contributing to a metric ton of fossil fuel use.  All those trucks carting around your tomato?  They’re using gas.  And if it’s a WalMart tomato that’s come over from China?  LOTS of fuel.  Tremendous amounts.  Some of those tomatoes may even be of the genetically modified varieties — some of which have even been spliced with fish genes (you read that right) to make them last longer.

Fish.  Genes.  (We’ll talk about it later this week, but I want to add that none of these splicings with strange DNA or miRNA are tested.  We have no idea what the long-term health problems might be from eating tomatoes with fish DNA.  Were I a betting woman, however, my money’d be on Mommy, why does that lady have four arms and a third head?)

So here’s my challenge for you this week, folks.

Start thinking, seriously, about a garden.

I’m not talking about going all gardener crazylady and ripping out your entire back yard to make a two-acre farm here.  A single tomato plant in a pot on your deck, a small plot in a community garden, or a 3′ x 5′ sunny patch near your garage.  They’re all gardens.  They’re all making food that doesn’t have to be airlifted in from Asia.  You don’t have to invest in a lot of gear or even invest a lot of time — just what you can afford, on both counts.

Tomorrow, I’ve got some resources for you if you’re new to the idea, or if you think you can’t even grow mold without help, and we’ll talk a little bit about dirt.

For now, though, think about your tomatoes.  (Or whatever else you think you can grow.)  Do a google search or call your local extension office to see if there’s a community garden somewhere nearby, if you don’t have dirt of your own.  Contemplate the idea.  Get creative.

Dream it, and come yap about it in the forums — we’ve got some green-thumbed masters in there who would be glad to weigh in if you’ve got questions, I’m sure.




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