Thursday, July 20, 2006

tomatoes

I woke up at 5:30 this morning and went out to change the location of the 'gun sprinkler' (that's what they call one of those sprinklers you see out in the middle of a vegetable field that shoots water a couple hundred feet around and around in a circle) when I was dismayed to have the pump that pushes the water through the pipe to the 'gun' go bang and then stop.

Something broke.

Oh well.

Before I took the pump to the shop to be repaired I switched which direction all of that water (both 2500 gallon tanks were over flowing with a night's worth of output from our spring) went. And instead of being shot from the 'gun' I had the water flow down the hill and through the half dozen smaller sprinklers that are set up in the field in front of the house.

This is where the tomatoes grow. Something like 5000 tomato plants.

And while I was setting up the sprinklers I saw that over night the tomatoes had started ripening.

This means that tomatoes should now be a regular feature in your share.

Which means that you need to read the tomato rules.

So here they are.

(this is basically an article I wrote a few years back that was subsequently reprinted in several cookbooks, half a dozen newsletters and is something I reprint this time every year.

Right now the crop is just starting to trickle in, but hopefully, if everything goes as expected, in the next couple of weeks we will have a flood of tomatoes. Early Girls, Big Boys. Big Beef, Sun Golds, Valley Girls, Mortgage Lifters, Lemon Boys, Brandywines, Romas, and another dozen varieties I can’t recall off of the top of my head.

If everything goes as planned, there will be hundreds and hundreds of ripe tomatoes each day.

This means I will not be individually handing out tomatoes. We will put them in those yellow boxes and let you pick your own.

But lets set some ground rules first, OK?

Our tomatoes are fundamentally different than those things that you see in the grocery store that are sold under the generic name ‘tomatoes’.

Corporate tomatoes, the ones that you buy in the grocery stores, are a completely different creature than what we grow.

Almost all of America’s summer tomatoes originate on huge tomato farms of hundreds, if not thousands of acres.

Most of America’s summer tomatoes are grown in the fabulously polluted San Joaquin Valley (and more recently the Eastern Shore of Virginia, making Virginia, in understand, the 4th largest producing state of summer tomatoes), and then shipped out to the rest of the country.

And how is something as delicate as a tomato transported from the corporate farm to the store without bruising?

Simple. They are picked green.

The tomato you see in the grocery store or in the salad at a restaurant was picked several weeks before you it is served to you. Piicked while it was still hard and green.

These green, unbruisable rock hard tomatoes were ripped off the plants, hauled out of the field, thrown into a large open tractor trailer, driven into a warehouse, and treated with a gas (the gas makes them turn red).

Then, the red, rock hard, 'tomato' is boxed and shipped out across the country.

And why, you might ask, do these large corporate tomato companies treat their tomatoes this way? Why don't they just let them ripen on the vine?

The answer is simple -tomatoes picked green are firmer, less juicy, more capable of bouncing around in a box for thousands of miles.

And once these picked green, gas treated, hard tomatoes get to the store they can withstand being pick up by the customer and squeezed.

It takes an awful lot to make a corporate tomato go squish.

Corporate tomatoes have what home grown tomatoes don’t have. They have ‘shelf life’.

Fresh, picked that morning , vine ripened tomatoes are completely different animals than their distant corporate relatives.

They are full of water.

Juice.

During that week or two longer the homegrown tomato spends on the vine several things happen.

First, they ripen. The fruit walls become more tender.

The fruit absorbs more water.

A vine ripened tomato becomes more delicately full of flavor. (this sure sounds like ad copy but its not just verbage, its true).

Additionally, while they have more flavor they are more delicate. They lack something the corporate tomato has.

They don't have shelf life.

If they are given a squeeze, unlike the ones in the grocery store, if they are given a squeeze, they go squish.

Squish, as in, tomato juice.

And if you put homegrown tomatoes in a box and ship them half way around the world what comes out at the other end is tomato mess, not tomatoes.

This lesson took me a number of years to learn.

Every year I would just put out our tomatoes like I do the rest of the vegetables, and let people pick through them looking for 'that one' they wanted to make their own.

Each day, as I drove home, 20-25% of the tomatoes I had picked in the morning, would be sitting in the back of the van, all squished up.

Ruined.

I thought, at the time, this was just the price of doing business. ‘Tomatoes’, I thought. ‘just don’t travel well. You need to pick more to account for the short shelf life.’

Then, one year, because we were having a poor tomato crop, instead of just putting the tomatoes out for people to pick through, I gave the tomatoes out.

And I learned something.

Instead of losing one out of four tomatoes to 'transportation' I lost only 1 or maybe 2 our of a hundred.

In other words, it wasn't the transportation that was causing the tomatoes to squish.

I found out what was damaging all of those perfectly good tomatoes.

People were picking them up, giving them a little squeeze, just like they would do to a corporate tomato in the grocery store.

But, unlike the corporate tomato, ours would go squish.

Local, homegrown tomatoes, are a completely different creature than those corporate vegetables. They are full of juice. They can’t handle being squeezed.

When you squeeze them you make tomato juice.

So, to make the story shorter, when you are picking out your tomatoes, just look at them, only touch the tomatoes you are going to put in your bag. And if, by chance, you don’t particularly like that tomato after picking it up, put it in your bag anyway, and take another one.

But don’t squeeze the tomatoes.

And that’s my tomato lecture for the season.

Leigh Hauter

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