The Perfect Tomato
by Diane Linsley
"Individuality is itself a good thing." ~Jane Loevinger, Paradigms of Personality.
I sometimes get e-mails starting with, "Hi, I'm looking for the perfect tomato...." The customer then proceeds to give me a description of the "perfect tomato." It is red and round with tangy, old-fashioned flavor. Or it is sweet and low in acid, so it won't trigger heartburn. Or it is large, meaty and productive - great for canning.
Thank goodness we all have different ideas of what the perfect tomato should be. Otherwise, there would only be one tomato in the whole world. My mom grew perfect tomatoes all her life - until I introduced her to heirlooms. She is starting to get used to the weird shapes and colors. But last year she was thrown for a loop. She called to tell me about a tomato in her garden that was purple and lumpy. She assumed it was deformed because it didn't get enough water. I knew immediately that the tomato in question was Purple Calabash, and I assured her it was normal.
This summer, my mom took 21 varieties of heirloom tomatoes to the farmer's market. She put the most perfect ones at the front of the table, thinking that they would attract the most attention. But nobody wanted them. They wanted the tomatoes with the weirdest shapes and colors. Wow! People are catching on.
When I told my mom that from now on we will be growing the most "far out" tomatoes that I can find on the internet, she was excited. I will be closing out some of my old, boring varieties - you know, the stuff you can get anywhere. I want to concentrate on the rarest varieties. Of course, I'm not neglecting quality or good flavor. What's the point of a yucky tomato, no matter how gorgeous it is? Here's my new criteria for choosing heirloom tomatoes:
1. Great flavor.
2. Early and mid season varieties. I can't grow late tomatoes because I live in zone 5, and I start my seeds in the house. I don't have a greenhouse.
3. Unusual colors like blue or stripes.
4. Unusual shapes, and a variety of different sizes.
5. Productivity. Nice to have, but not essential. When you grow dozens of different varieties, you don't need any one variety to be extremely productive.
One of my new favorites is Berkeley Tie-Dye Heart from Wild Boar Farms. Brad Gates says that it's "about as far as I have gotten from a round, red, tasteless tomato." It's definitely a winner.
For many years, I focused on eating red and pink tomatoes because I heard that they were high in lycopene, which helps to prevent cancer. Recently, I was shocked to read that yellow tomatoes contain a form of lycopene that may be more absorbable than the lycopene in red tomatoes. It turns out that I should have been eating both colors for a full range of cancer-preventing carotenoids.
Then there's the new anthocyanin tomatoes. They are bred to contain purple-blue anthocyanin pigment in the skin. Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants. It looks like we need to expand our diets because there's not a single fruit or vegetable that has everything we need to be healthy.
Have you ever wondered where the idea of the "perfect tomato" came from? Years ago, I read an article in the February 2000 issue of Discover magazine, which revealed what scientists have learned about beauty. They discovered that people's idea of beauty is actually just average. The scientists have a computer program that combines hundreds of pictures of people into one picture, creating the "perfect woman" or the "perfect man". Everyone who sees these pictures agrees that they are better-looking than any of the individual pictures that make up the combined picture. The big discovery is that the ideal face is just an average of all the faces you've ever seen.
So it follows that the perfect tomato is just an average of all the tomatoes you've ever seen and tasted. If you've only been exposed to grocery store tomatoes, that's all you can imagine. It's time to expand your awareness.
Once you realize that perfection is just an ideal in your mind that has nothing to do with reality, you are free. Think of the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the Borg in Star Trek, or all-the-same hybrid tomatoes at the grocery store. Perfection is the ultimate horror! Is that really what you want?
Well, I don't want to get too political here, but let's admit it - we each make choices every day, whether we are aware of them or not. Vote for freedom. Say, "No!" to perfect tomatoes.
The world is beautiful because of its diversity. My perfect world would have as many different tomatoes as possible.