The ripe round red tomato sitting on the kitchen table is alive and busy. While we are asking, “How shall I eat it?” the tomato is huffing and puffing, sending signals throughout its meat and juices that cue color, texture, and flavor changes. The tomato, if it could talk, would tell us it doesn’t give a damn how we eat it. It only wants to get its seeds out into soil and make more of itself. It’s dying, it would say, to do that.
As you and I consider gustatory possibilities (sliced into thick slabs and topped with fresh basil?), out in the garden, the tomato plant has gone into red alert. On the scratchy vine, messages stream from the wound our picking left behind. One set of messages instructs the plant to make a scab so liquids can’t flow out and bacteria and viruses can’t get in. Another set of messages, more a memo, really, advises the plant, “There’s one less mouth to feed. Send his food and water to the other fruits.”
If animals seem smarter than plants, it’s only because a plant’s activities go on at cellular levels, literally beneath our notice. An animal, when you give it trouble, can eat you up or run away. A plant's rooted down, stuck in dirt. It has to take whatever gets dished out. So plants, to survive, have developed complicated defense mechanisms. Some researchers even describe plants as “slow animals,” forced by immobility to respond in subtler ways.
With the thought of that huffing, puffing tomato on the table, I considered the plant’s progress from seed to ripe fruit. What did that plant do? It popped out of the ground, put out leaves, grew taller, put out more leaves, then yellow blossoms and, finally, green tomatoes that ripened and turned red. That was all I knew.
I have in hand Pat Welsh’s two-pound paperback Pat Welsh's Southern California Gardening while by telephone she and I talk about tomatoes. Born into a gardening family in what she describes as “a great, beautiful garden in Yorkshire, England,” Welsh spent her teen years on a farm in Pennsylvania. In 1945 she came west with her family, eventually marrying and settling in San Diego. Welsh was San Diego Home/Garden's first garden editor and was for five years “Resident Gardener” on San Diego’s NBC television affiliate.
Welsh plants Early Girl tomatoes for a June crop, then for August, Celebrity and Better Boy. “I always grow Better Boy,” she says. “That’s the one I like best. For a smaller, cherry type, I grow Sweet 100. Close to the ocean, I just don’t think you can do better than Better Boy and Early Girl and Celebrity. But Better Boy grows just everywhere.
“The most important thing about tomatoes, no matter where you live in the county, is sun. I’ve had people call me and say, ‘My tomatoes have no blossom and no fruit.’ And I say, ‘Did you plant them in shade?’ and inevitably they answer yes.
“In the interior, grow a heat-resistant variety. Ace Hybrid or San Diego Hybrid. And if you live in the interior, do not prune leaves off your tomatoes. If you do, your fruit will get sunburned.
“People shouldn’t plant Patio in the ground, and a lot of people don’t realize that. They look at it in the nursery and think it looks so healthy, so sturdy, the stem is so thick, and so they buy it not realizing it doesn’t have any of the protection for growing in the soil. It’s not resistant to certain soil-borne diseases, because it was built to grow in a container with potting soil, and potting soil has none of those ‘baddies.’”
I ask Welsh what is the best tomato she’s ever eaten, and she answers quickly. “The best I ever ate in my life was in England in my grandfather’s greenhouse, and I don’t think I could ever eat such a tomato here.”
Does she recall what variety her grandfather’s tomato was?
“No. And I don’t think it made much difference what variety it was. It was that it was grown in a moist, warm greenhouse and tasted so good picked off the vine with this magnificent aroma. I always remember that tomato. But once in a while, picking a tomato off the vine in my own garden, smelling that warm, bright, marvelous smell, and eating it right then and there, I’ve tasted that same flavor and had that same feeling.”
Tim Hartz is a state agricultural extension specialist, with offices at the University of California at Davis. Hartz tells me that California produces 90 percent of the nation’s tomatoes. UC Davis, he says, is the leader in research in basic physiology, biochemistry, and genetics of tomatoes. “If you include entomologists and pathologists and molecular geneticists,” Hartz says, “at least two dozen people on the Davis campus are working primarily on tomatoes.”
Critics of the commercially grown fruit speak of UC Davis as the “Treblinka of the tomato.” Researchers there developed the mechanical tomato picker in the early ’60s. Then their breeders created tough-skinned, square processing tomatoes, able to bear up under rough-handling mechanical harvest.
Some facts: Tomatoes are part of the cuisine on four of the five continents. After potatoes, tomatoes are America’s most important commercial vegetable. We eat about 80 pounds of tomatoes per year per person, a figure that includes fruit used to make tomato paste and sauce, salsa, catsup, and juice. Tomatoes are the most frequently canned vegetable in the U.S.
Tomato professionals (breeders, plant physiologists and biochemists, growers, county extension agents) speak of the tomato as three different crops: processing, fresh market, and home garden.
The processing tomato is meaty, with a high pectin content that gives pastes, sauces, and catsups a thick consistency. It is bred to be harvested, bush and all, by machine and shipped long distances.
Fresh market tomatoes, sold in supermarkets and used by restaurants, are bred to taste good and be round, red, and smoothskinned. In 1992, according to USDA statistics, the fresh market tomato commanded $5 billion in retail sales.