Wild Tomatoes

TomatoesI’m excited to have an essay in the upcoming summer issue of Gastronomica –  a journal best summed up as celebrating intellectual inquisitiveness in the realm of food and culture.

During my obsessive checking of their site to see if the summer issue is out yet, I’ve stumbled over some interesting articles from the archives. I thought I’d pass along this one by Barry Estabrook about the wild tomatoes behind today’s domesticated favorites: On the Tomato Trail: In Search of Ancestral Roots. (Technically, they’re searching for the seeds, not the roots).

One particular tidbit caught my attention – among all the breeding for disease resistance, size, and color, breeding tomatoes for better taste has proven difficult.

With advances in the technologies of working with dna, new areas are opening up for breeders. Better methods will allow scientists to routinely address more complex traits, such as the elusive matter of taste, which is controlled by multiple genes.

I knew that commercial tomato producers often prize transportability over flavor, favoring tomatoes that can be picked green, stored without smooshing, and sprayed with ethylene gas to turn red by the time they hit the store shelves. Much more efficient from a business perspective. I hadn’t realized that scientific complexity, not just economic imperative, was keeping us away from a more flavorful tomato.

Apparently other people knew this secret. Here is a Scientific American blog article warning that heirloom tomatoes aren’t as different from the conventional fare as we like to think: How To Grow a Better Tomato – The Case Against Heirloom Tomatoes

Better times for tomato flavor may be ahead.

Postscript: Barry Estabrook has other, perhaps better known, tomato writings. Check out his book Tomatoland here. Also, his earlier, James Beard Award Winning article Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes here.

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