The Frontal Cortex

Tomatoes

Haven’t we done enough to the poor tomato? We’ve turned the voluptuous fruit into a pale imitation of itself: the average supermarket tomato, turned red with ethylene, tastes like, well, nothing. And now we have to genetically modify it for the sake of ketchup?

At a research farm in California, scientists for H.J. Heinz Co. are also cautiously eyeing their young tomato plants. Their goal, however, is a little more specific.

Heinz is trying to breed a sweeter tomato in order to cut down on the costly corn syrup now used in its ketchup. It’s one response to the soaring price of corn, caused in part by the ethanol boom.

Don’t get me wrong: I love ketchup. In fact, my guilty secret for a deliciously simple tomato sauce for pasta is to add a tablespoon or two of ketchup to the hot oil in which I’m sauteeing my garlic. Once the garlic begins to color, I then add my canned crushed San Marzano tomatoes. The ketchup adds a little sweetness and umami.

But I’m worried about this race to breed a sweeter tomato. Fruits need balance. I used to love white peaches but now every white peach is so treacly, sweet and one-dimensional. In the rush to create a shippable and sweet stone fruit they managed to breed out all the acid, which helped cut the sugariness of the peach. The tastelessness of our fruits and vegetables (at least when compared to their heirloom ancestors) remains one of the starkest reminders that modern technology comes with drawbacks.

Comments

  1. #1 chezjake
    May 17, 2008

    At least the heirlooms and more traditional hybrid tomatoes remain available. I only eat fresh tomatoes in season that are home grown or locally grown. There’s never been an edible supermarket tomato as far as I can tell.

    Unfortunately, we also seem to be heading in the direction of all sweet and no real flavor for corn as well. The early sweet hybrids that partially disabled the enzyme that turns sugar to starch helped corn stay fresh longer than a couple hours, but the more recent super-sweet varieties are more dessert than vegetable.

  2. #2 Nic
    May 17, 2008

    It’s not just the rubbery taste, it’s the texture — supermarket tomatoes taste to me like water balloons filled with unset Jell-O. I thought I hated the fruit in general until I tried the variety my fiancee’s parents grow in their garden.

  3. #3 phisrow
    May 17, 2008

    All I can say is that I’m glad we don’t have anything as crazy as the EU seeds marketing directives over on this side of the pond. While our mass produced crop varieties can be nothing short of dreadful we don’t, yet at least, have to resort to the black market to get ahold of heirloom seed varieties.

  4. #4 Rachael
    May 17, 2008

    I can’t bring myself to enjoy corn for this reason. Now the “Super Super Super Duper Supremely Sugary” varieties are popular. It might not be genetic engineering, but it bugs the hell out of me.

  5. #5 quisp
    May 17, 2008

    You’re making me want to dig out and reread one of my favorite books, “Can You Trust a Tomato in January.” My URL link above (or wherever) is really the Amazon link to it.

  6. #6 Julie Stahlhut
    May 17, 2008

    Sugary excess has ruined two of my favorite treats. One was pink grapefruit juice cocktail, now completely replaced on supermarket shelves by “ruby red”, which is not only oversweetened and has lost its bitter-tart bite, but has fragrance overtones of cheap hand lotion and stale Froot Loops. It’s also just about impossible to find the nice chewy tart dried apricots that I loved until just a few years ago. They’re now all plumped up with sugar, soft like gumdrops, as sweet as chocolate bars, and completely devoid of tartness. Bleahhhh.

  7. #7 Chris Adams
    May 17, 2008

    Tomatoes are tolerable: we get fresh heirlooms from local farms and the two closest markets are run by Italians who take these things seriously. Pineapple and bananas, on the other hand, are painfully limited to the super-sweet insipid varieties.

    I grew up near what was probably the only banana plantation in the continental US (which folded, unfortunately) – there are a couple dozen varieties I’ve never seen in stores. At least the indian places have the lady-fingers and plaintains but it’s still largely a Dole world.

  8. #8 Gray Gaffer
    May 17, 2008

    One of the joys of English cooking for me was the Apple Crumble Pie. Made with English Cooking apples, unobtainable in the US, that are inedibly tart when raw. I sorely miss that treat. US apples have no tartness left in them at all.

    But even back in the 70′s the supermarket forces were hoisting tasteless veggies on us. Only when I first tasted tomatoes, brussel sprouts, and broccoli prepared within an hour of being picked from the garden did I realize just how tasty they were (should be!).

  9. #9 jb
    May 17, 2008

    This is for Gray and others who love apples! One of the delights of farmer’s markets in the Baltimore area is the Reid’s Orchards stand. Dave and Kathy Reid grow 100 kinds of apple and 60 of them are heirloom varities from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries from France, England and other European countries. The orchard is in Buchanan Valley, PA, 15 miles west of Gettysburg, so perhaps they sell at other markets in the area. I have a farm in Maine that sends me Red Astrakhans to make pink applesauce so maybe the Reid’s will mail apples as well.
    To read an excellent article about this orchard and the apples google Reid’s Orchards, Buchanan Valley, PA and look for an article in Urbanite Magazine #28, October ’06. The Reids are also very environmentally conscious and use as green an aproach as is possible with apples.

  10. #10 Julie Stahlhut
    May 17, 2008

    US apples have no tartness left in them at all.

    Try adding some cranberries to the apples for a great, tart pie! Mrs. Smith’s Pies used to do a nice apple-cranberry around the holidays (although it was difficult to find outside New England,), but I don’t think they make it any more. Darn shame, since we don’t always have time to put together a pie from scratch.

    My grandfather and uncle grew tomatoes when I was a kid, and my husband and I managed a few plants every year when we actually had a back yard of our own. I really don’t care for supermarket tomatoes at all, although I’ll tolerate them if cooked. (Grape tomatoes seem to be hard to ruin, fortunately.) Someday we’ll have our own yard again, and tomato plants will be mandatory!

  11. #11 Clark
    May 17, 2008

    One big problem with a lot of vegetables and fruit is that they were bred for transport. In many cases this allowed nearly untransportable fruits to move around the country. (Say stawberries) But what you get frankly…sucks. But then just don’t buy your vegetables and fruit at the local grocery store (or at least not ones that don’t have a better selection)

    Now that companies are breeding or engineering for particular tastes I don’t see the problem. Already even my “mainstream” grocery stores have something like 20 different kinds of tomatoes. (And that’s ignoring the sun dried or canned stuff or pastes) My local garden center had starters of a ridiculous amount of tomatoes – and that’s just what grows easily here. I’m sure in the east coast or Napa valley there are more.

    So for industrial use where things are a bit trickier I certainly don’t have trouble. I think the biggest new movement is organic and specialty farms anywhere. So I think we’ll be seeing a big increase in the number and variety of fruit, vegetables and even meats.

  12. #12 Mike
    May 18, 2008

    So, Jonah, is book 2 going to be a book of recipes?

  13. #13 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    May 18, 2008

    I think you are wrong about the Heinz tomato initiative. They are trying to bread a tomato for flavor. This is pretty much the opposite of what has happened to the supermarket fruits and vegetables you whine about. Those were manipulated for looks and ease of shipping, not for flavor. That’s pretty much the whole problem.

  14. #14 Gray Gaffer
    May 18, 2008

    jb – thanks for the Reid’s info. Not sure about mail order, apples crossing state borders are problematic. Julie – thanks for the recipe tip.

    I have an hypothesis that no amount of breeding is going to fix the taste as delivered after transportation and shelf time; my subjective opinion of our home veggie plot experience is that something happens biochemically after the bit to be eaten is detached from its living plant, and happens really fast (O(hrs)). Just like the scent of new-mown grass is so evanescent. Of course, those unfortunates who have never picked and cooked will never know the true difference.

    Too bad I have black thumb and no kitchen skills. I have burned water, and failed at every plant-raising effort. And am no longer with the gf who could do both.

  15. #15 jb
    May 18, 2008

    for Gray: I live in Maryland and get apples sent by mail or UPS from Maine, or they come with me after a visit in my baggage on a plane. Of course, the greener way to make pink applesauce is to use local Staymans which a neighbor grows across the street, I discovered last fall.

  16. #16 David Dobbs
    May 18, 2008

    Calvin Trillin, who did not like catsup, once wrote about the moment at his family’s table when one of his young daughters one day asked, “Why don’t we have catsup at our house?” There was a stiff silence. Then Trillin asked, “Who told you about catsup?”

    My wife told me a couple days ago that she’d read that 95% of American households have a bottle of catsup in the house, and that 50% of those bottles are Heinz.

  17. #17 Tom Taylor
    May 21, 2008

    Anyone have a report on phosphatidylserine; I take it whenever I have a particularly mental task ahead of me. It’s found at health food stores as “promoting brain function.”

  18. #18 Lab Cat
    May 26, 2008

    jb

    Thanks for the link. I live in DE and want to plant my own apples trees. Reids might be a valuable source.

  19. #19 christie
    September 28, 2008

    My boyfriend buys tomatoes all the time at a local grocery store- we live in Pa.–now on the tomato itself a small sticker says “locally grown”. I’ve grown up in my grandparents garden–worked in amarket where we sold produce—and over the years grew some of my own tomatoes. The ones in the store to me taste bland—are hard and and have a tough skin—when i worked at the market I found out to my surprise that some of these so called “local” tomatoes were from Jersey or Florida. MY man and i had a debate about this topic this morning…he insisted if it says local– they were from the area….I said..No…if you go to a farm where they grew their own veggies..or anyone who has a garden….you wil SEE Taste the difference. I’m tryin to find some data that will help me support this —THERE is a DEFINATE taste and testure difference… can someone help me out as to WHY people can put this “local” sticker on something that isn’t….AND… point out the DISTINCE differences in taste from garden…local farm tomatoes versus ones sent from florida or jersey..Thanks so much~

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