Arthur Allen's journalism career began in 1981 in Mexico City, where he freelanced for various publications. He was then a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in El Salvador, freelancer from France in the late eighties and AP correspondent in Bonn, Germany. Since leaving the AP in 1995, he has written articles for magazines and Web sites including Smithsonian, The New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Mother Jones, Salon.com and Slate.com. Allen currently writes a science policy column for Washingtonindependent.com. "I like to know how things work, and I'm particularly fascinated by the science and technology that lie behind objects of everyday use," says Allen, author of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver, published last year. In Smithsonian's August issue, he takes on tomatoes.
What drew you to this story?
The article was a spin-off of my research into the tomato, which began early in 2007. I had wanted to write a book about the technology of food for a long time, and the tomato seemed like an ideal focus, since everyone eats them and they have been transformed in interesting ways. The idea of a piece for Smithsonian was hatched over a meal—lunch, appropriately enough, at La Tomate, in Dupont Circle.
What surprised you most about tomatoes, that you didn't know going into this story?
Many things. For example, tomatoes are the modern crop that has been most improved (or at least changed) by the introduction of genes from its wild relatives. There's kind of a paradox here. All amateur tomato aficionados are struck by the seemingly vast diversity in the types of tomatoes you can grow in your garden—everything from Big Boys and Early Girls to hundreds of exquisitely peculiar heirlooms that are orange and yellow and green-black and have weird shapes. There are 5,000 tomato types maintained by the USDA at its Geneva, New York station, and perhaps 20,000 other varieties at other places around the world. And yet, the tomato as we know it is really quite a homogeneous plant when you compare it to its wild relatives. There is more genetic diversity in a single collection of Solanum peruvianum, a common wild relative of the tomato, than there is in all the collections of cultivated tomatoes in the world! I'm not sure what the significance of this is, exactly, but it's kind of amazing. And it means that wild tomato species have many characteristics that could be incorporated into our tomatoes—without using genetic modification.
Any funny stories from TomatoFest that didn't make it into the piece?
There were a lot of very good-looking, wealthy-looking California people there, including Clint Eastwood (I have a tomato that Gary Ibsen named for him growing in my garden this year). Pretty much all of these people were toasted on the local wine, which flowed in great and delicious profusion. I may have been the only sober person there.
I also found it interesting that people from all walks of the tomato industry attend this event. Chris Rufer—king of the industrialized, super-efficient California tomato operations—was at the TomatoFest, and so was a wonderful organic farmer I know named Larry Jacobs. In a way, this demonstrates what a small world the tomato industry is, despite its diversity. Doing work on tomatoes I've gotten a sense of the feelings and dilemmas that unite farmers, whether they are organic or non-organic, small, medium or large.
You say in the story that "flavor is in the mouth of the taster." How do you like your tomato?
For me, the tomato needs friends. With a few exceptions, like the cherries and pears and Honeybunches that my friend Kanti Rawal breeds, I don't much like eating tomatoes without some kind of accompaniment. I like making sauces, but canned whole or crushed tomatoes are generally as good or better than fresh for this purpose, in my humble opinion, except for the rare occasion when I have enough of my own tomatoes to make a sauce. Oil and vinegar and tomatoes with a strong garden herb are, obviously, a good combination—and the nutritionists say that mixing oil with your tomatoes makes the lycopene in them more bioavailable.
How are your tomato plants doing?
I gave away about 60 of them to my friends at a party in mid-May. At the time, I felt sort of guilty because we'd had heavy rains and very cool weather in Washington, DC, and the plants looked bad—leggy and yellowed and the leaves had some kind of wilt. But with some nice sunshine since then they've all straightened out and they are beginning to set fruit. I look forward to mid-August with great hope and a certain amount of anxiety.