Wednesday, August 08, 2007

tomatoes

(this is a newsletter from a couple years ago but it contains the rules for picking up your tomatoes. A slightly different version has been printed in several magazines and cookbooks).


Let's see, what happened on the farm this week?

On Saturday I almost got mugged. Right in the middle of the farm. In broad daylight.

On Sunday we hiked the length of the valley, down along the creek from our farm out to Thoroughfare Gap and then back along the ridge top. The entire hike, we didn't see one other person, but we did see a lot of blue berries. We stopped in one place for over an hour picking and eating.

Wild blueberries turn your teeth blue.

Monday I saw the first squash growing out in the field. A middle eastern squash.

Tuesday we harvested the last of the spring lettuce. Red oak leaf. No more lettuce until September. That evening it rained a quarter inch.

Wednesday it sprinkled all day. An eighth of an inch. I noticed the little white furry caterpillar type insect. When you touch them they sting like nettles. There were a couple in the fields last year. This year, many more. What are they? A type of asp? I had never seen one on the farm until the past couple of years.

And even though this week I really wanted to tell you about my assailant and to remind everyone about a proposed holiday, National Berry Picking Day, Let's, instead, discuss something really, really important instead.

Tomatoes.

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, Green Zebras, 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 rules first, OK?

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

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

First, corporate tomatoes aren't grown around here. Almost all of America's summer tomatoes originate in California. This is the truth. Most of America's summer tomatoes are grown in the fabulously polluted San Joaquin Valley and then shipped across country.

And in the winter, America's tomatoes come from Chile or Mexico or greenhouses in Arizona (the East Coast's winter tomatoes, just a few years ago, were mostly grown in Florida, but NAFTA changed that. Florida couldn't compete with Mexico for cheap labor -which when it comes to picking tomatoes by hand, is a large part of the cost. Most of the large Florida tomato growers have gone out of business in the past couple years).

And how is something as delicate as a tomato transported all of those thousands of miles?

Simple. They are picked green and often treated with a gas to make them turn red.

And why, you might ask, would anyone pick their tomatoes green (unless they took a fancy to green fried tomatoes)? The answer -tomatoes picked green are firmer, less juicy, more capable of bouncing around in a box, and in the store, being pick up and squeezed.

It takes an awful lot to make them go squish.

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

Fresh, picked that morning ,tomatoes are different. They are full of water. Juice. The fruit walls are tender.If they are given a squeeze, they go squish. As in, tomato juice. And if you put them in a box and shipped them half way around the world what would come out at the other end is tomato juice, 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 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 truck, all squished up.

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 crop of tomatoes, instead of just putting the tomatoes out for people to pick themselves, I gave the tomatoes out.

And I learned something.

Only 1 or 2% of the tomatoes got squished in transit.

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

Oh well.

So, to make the story short, 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 get another one.

We should have plenty of tomatoes in a couple of weeks.

And that's my tomato lecture for the season.

And since I've taken up some much space talking about tomatoes I'll save National Berry Week until next week. And I guess I can also tell you then about being attacked, in full daylight, by a ferocous, take no prisoners, set on drawing blood, rooster.

Have a bodacious week.

Leigh Hauter

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