August is a great time of the year to visit your local Farmer’s Market. You can taste freshly picked fully ripe produce as you take in the sight of multi-hued tomatoes, eggplants, squashes, beans and peppers all the while surrounded by the heady aroma of ripe melons, soothing lavender, fragrant apples and sweet juicy peaches. A trip to the market can cause serious sensory overload!
I never knew tomatoes had flavor until I tasted my first vine ripen tomato way back in my college days. After that experience, I only brought tomatoes in season or grew my own.
Tomatoes, originally from the Andes, has been alternately revered and feared. In the same family as Belladonna, tomato leaves are indeed poisonous but its fruit, the tomato, is not. Later, tomatoes were thought to be an aphrodisiac and was called ‘the Apple of Love.’ In Italy, tomatoes were much more accepted and was known as pomodoro or golden apple referring to the first tomatoes which were probably yellow cherry size tomatoes. At the turn of the century, it was thought that tomatoes caused cancer. Then it was later ‘discovered’ that by cooking for at least 3 hours the toxins could be inactivated. After World War I, community farm groups interested in raising awareness of nutrition began programs for youth to start home gardens. Tomatoes became very popular because they were so easy to grow. In fact today, tomatoes are the most popular home garden vegetable and the 3rd most popular canned vegetable.
Tomatoes, did however, take another dark turn in the 50’s and 60’s when profit minded agri-businesses sponsored research to develop small hard thick skinned tomatoes to withstand mechanical harvesting and long distance travel. Flavor was sacrificed resulting in my childhood experience with pink cardboard flavored tomatoes. In the past decade, heightened awareness of nutrition and the search for natural and ‘wow what a concept’ flavorful foods has brought about the resurgence of heirloom or pre agri-business varieties of all types of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes.
Heirloom tomatoes refer to tomato varieties that were grown in America’s past and have thankfully regained popularity. A few examples include the ‘green grape’ cherry tomatoes, green and orange striped ‘green zebra’, yellow and red ‘marvel stripe’, the large pale yellow ‘great white’, the greenish red ‘cherokee’, the large pinkish red ‘brandywine’, and the bright orange ‘gold dust.’ Tomatoes also range in flavor with some as sweet as sugar to some with more acid.
When shopping for tomatoes, look for tomatoes which give slightly to gentle pressure, have no soft spots or broken skin. Avoid rock hard tomatoes which do not have full color because unripe tomatoes will never have as fully developed a flavor as a true vine ripen tomato. When you take them home remember that refrigeration will rob a tomato of its flavor so its best to store in a cool place outside of the refrigerator. Don’t be afraid to have fun and try the many varieties.