A Passion for Tomatoes

Whatever the variety—commercial hybrid or precious heirloom—the plump juicy “vegetable” has a place in our hearts

Where did you think tomato paste came from? A harvester in California’s Sacramento Valley gathers tons of Roma-type tomatoes for Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato-processing company. (Ed Darack/ www.darack.com)
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Nothing quite showcases the industrial bounty of California agriculture like a vast field of tomatoes baking in the August sun. A rich, dusky red emanates from beneath the curled, dying leaves. A nearly two-story-tall mechanical harvester run by the Morning Star tomato-processing company clatters through the Sacramento Valley field. As the machine hums along at about three miles per hour, it uproots two rows of plants and lays them on a belt that conveys them to the top of the harvester, where the vines are sucked through a shredder and blown back onto the field as the tomatoes cascade onto other belts. Electronic eyes send signals to plastic fingers that pop out anything not red or green. Dirt clods, last year's squash and the errant toad and mouse tumble to the ground. The ripe fruit is funneled into a tandem trailer. In ten minutes, the machine gathers more than 22,000 pounds of Roma-type processing tomatoes.

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I get into a pickup truck with Cameron Tattam, a Morning Star supervisor, and we follow a semitractor that hooks up to the trailer, pulls out of the field and then barrels down Interstate 5 to a Morning Star cannery outside the town of Williams. This 120-acre facility is the largest of its type in the world. During the three months of the local harvest, it handles more than 1.2 million pounds of tomatoes every hour. The tomatoes I just saw getting picked are washed down a stainless steel flume and plunged into a 210-degree cooker. The heat and pressure blow them apart. After passing through evaporators and cooling pipes, they will end up three hours later as sterile-packed tomato paste in 3,000-pound boxes. For the next two weeks, the facility will produce nothing but paste that is destined to become Heinz ketchup. Among Morning Star's other large customers are Pizza Hut, Campbell's Soup and Unilever, maker of Ragu.

Processing tomatoes—condensed or canned—make up 75 percent of the tomatoes that Americans eat. Farmers think of them as an entirely different crop than fresh-market tomatoes. The variety that Tattam and I watched being harvested is a hybrid called Heinz 2401. It was bred to maximize yield, with thick-skinned, fleshy fruit that ripen simultaneously so they can be picked all at once and withstand a machine's rough handling. Its genes maximize the conversion of solar rays into sugars and solids. These tomatoes have thin cavities, or locules, where the seeds and juices—and many flavors—are stored. There is little point in having a lot of volatile flavors in a processing tomato because cooking boils them off, and, besides, much of the flavor of ketchup and tomato sauce comes from whatever the tomatoes are mixed with. The Heinz 2401 is also bred for resistance to tomato pathogens, of which there are many: beetles and nematodes, fungi such as fusarium and verticillium, and viruses such as yellow leaf curl and spotted wilt, which are carried in the wind, the soil or the mouths of pests such as whitefly and thrips. Because it doesn't really matter what processing tomatoes look like, they require fewer applications of pesticides than do fresh-market varieties. The Romas I saw being harvested had been sprayed only once.

There's something a bit brutal about the production methods exemplified by Morning Star's operations, which are all about maximizing yield and efficiency. But the industrial tomato has its place, even if foodies turn up their noses at it. "You want us to be out there with hoes, like in a third-world nation?" Tattam says. "How else are you going to feed 350 million people?"

The next day I drive 30 miles south to the live-oak-shaded compound of Full Belly Farm, a small operation in the Capay Valley. An organic farm that grows up to 100 crops, including 25 tomato varieties, it couldn't be more different from Morning Star. Full Belly's farmers fertilize their fields with dung from their own sheep, herded into the fields after harvest. A bank of trees and shrubs by the creek harbors bats and birds that feast on insects—pest control. The farm relies as much as possible on such predators as well as good mulch. When those measures fail, it turns to organic controls, including garlic, cedar and clove oils. "Our goal is to somehow take the farm, which is an artificial system, and mimic the systems you see in the natural world," says partner Andrew Brait, 42, whose heirloom tomatoes are one of the farm's biggest sources of profit.

Brait has staked his heirloom tomatoes in a patch of uneven bottomland alongside gorgeous heirloom peppers, eggplants and squash. But in the tomato patch, things don't look quite so good. Tobacco mosaic virus, long ago controlled by breeding resistance into commercial tomatoes, has attacked the vines, causing the leaves to shrivel and some of the fruit to abort while tiny. The plants are still growing, and Brait will be happy if they yield as little as five tons to the acre, or about one-eighth of a Morning Star harvest from one acre. Chic Bay Area stores and restaurants such as the Zuni Café and Chez Panisse cheerfully shell out $2.50 a pound for Brait's heirloom tomatoes. (Last year Morning Star reportedly paid farmers the equivalent of 3 cents a pound.) In the farm's packinghouse, Brait feeds me vine-ripened Green Zebras, verdigris-and-orange-mottled Marvel Stripes and Zapotec Pinks, wrinkled as a bulldog's muzzle (the breeder term is "catfaced"). I chew on his tiny Sun Gold cherry tomatoes and get a sour blast, followed by a burst of sweetness that deposits a complex honey musk on my upper palate.

In recent years, heirloom tomatoes have become a mainstay of gourmet culture, a testament to authenticity and a strike against the complaint, voiced fervently by Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, that the everyday tomato "has had its hide toughened" and "has been pushed around, squared, even gassed to death," every year becoming "less of a fruit and more of a metaphor."

But let us not be tomato snobs. Let us acknowledge that the pleasure of the heirloom itself is as much metaphorical as real. The heirloom's huge variety of shapes and colors and flavors offers a reassuring sense of diversity in a cookie-cutter world; backyard cultivation gives the city dweller or suburbanite an almost spiritual connection to an ancestral agrarian past. I'm aware of no evidence that heirlooms make you healthier than hybrid tomatoes. And the cheap, mass-produced processing tomato yields more concentrated nutrients than the fresh-market varieties that are picked green. "There's more antioxidant activity in a tablespoon of paste than a box of fresh tomatoes," says Kanti Rawal of San Leandro, California, who has no reason to exaggerate—he's a breeder of fresh-market varieties. Not only that, antioxidant tomato micronutrients such as lycopene and beta carotene are more easily absorbed when consumed with cooking oil, according to some research. Yes, Virginia, pizza is good for you.

Even in the fresh-market world, not everyone is convinced that heirlooms taste best. "What is good flavor?" says Teresa Bunn, a breeder at Seminis, a seed company owned by Monsanto. "Everyone has a different perception. You can do things to boost sugars and acids, but people want a different balance. It's hard to get people to agree on the same thing." There's also the issue of how appearance and "mouth feel" affect the perception of tomato quality. "If you're blindfolded, an orange tomato may taste good, but a lot of people won't buy an orange tomato," Bunn says. Most eaters mistrust mealy tomatoes, even if they are flavorful. Still, heirloom tomatoes do tend to have more intense flavors, Bunn says. "You can think of a tomato as a factory, with each leaf a worker. Heirlooms have fewer fruit and more factory. On the commercial side, farmers are paid for yield. They want as many fruit as they can get. A lot of times it's perceived that heirlooms are better tasting, but it could be that they just pack more flavor into them. And just because it's an heirloom doesn't mean it's a good tomato." Flavor is in the mouth of the taster. "I can't stand the flavor of Brandywines," says John "Jay" W. Scott, a well-known Florida tomato breeder, voicing apostasy about a choice heirloom variety.

A year ago, I set out to learn how the world's second most popular "vegetable" (the potato is No. 1) had connived its way into the major cuisines of the world. Perhaps more than any other food, tomatoes inspire passion. Whether it's outrage over the "cardboard" supermarket tomato, pride in the recipe that great-grandma brought over from the old country, or the mystique of that homegrown tomato vine, the smell and feel and even the texture of tomatoes manage to get under almost everyone's skin. Still, despite what the organic-obsessed Cassandras might have us believe, the tomato is thriving, even at Safeway. The recent nationwide alarm after hundreds of consumers were sickened after eating fresh tomatoes contaminated by salmonella bacteria (see opposite page) underscored consumers' intense attachment to the fruit. "Business is down 50 percent," Bob Pizza, chief executive of What a Tomato Produce Company, told me at the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market. "But sales will come back. People can't do without their tomatoes."


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