FOOD: Tough Tomatoes
Hard Pulpy Hybrids Don’t Make the Grade
By Justin Case
Back in the day, they had an expression. They’d say, she’s a real tomato. Or—she’s a juicy tomato, slang for a sexy woman, a phrase Moe of The Three Stooges might have uttered (I think that’s where I learned it) or James Cagney, and some people might wonder why certain men would have referred to certain women that way. It’s out of date these days, an anachronism, not merely as a result of pesky gender politics, but because, regret-tably, and more importantly, nobody knows what a juicy tomato is anymore.
’m talking about the actual vegetable— or rather, the forbidden fruit. Think about it, a man who found a certain type of woman to be oozing with sex appeal used that telling phrase. It flowed from his mouth and salivary glands the way verse once emerged from those inclined irresistibly toward poetic romanticism—spontaneously from the loins. Imagine then just how juicy tomatoes must have been in those days to draw a comparison related to such primal and lusty impulses. They must have been really good— sweet, plump and delicious, a delight and stimulant to the senses and all that makes us human. They were a necessary adjunct to any good sandwich (save ham and corned beef), which begs the question, as well, whatever happened to the sandwich? And I will tell you, it went downhill into obscurity, into near oblivion, along side the juicy tomato, because you can’t have a plump juicy sandwich without several slices from a plump juicy tomato (add mayo and a slice of onion).
So, what happened?
Today’s hard, pulpy, tasteless, hybrids barely resemble real tomatoes. Seems we’re eating corpor-ate food engineered to remain durable for months and as they’re shipped thousands of miles, even from Mexico and Chile.
Should we expect juicy tomatoes out of season though—are we that spoiled? No, we should not, but we are lucky if we get sweet plump juicy tomatoes in season. And, realistically, Montana is not exactly tomato country. Tomatoes are fructus non gratis here (forbidden fruit, as it were) in that they require a long hot summer and thrive in humid places like New Jersey and South America, Italy too, and in my backyard as a kid, and so you’re excused if you didn’t grow up with the experience of stealing tomatoes from a neighbor’s garden (arrest me) or from your own family garden, and sneaking off with a salt shaker to that hidden spot beneath the willows, eating several to the core—you lick the tomato so the salt will stick, take that first juicy bite, then shake some more salt into the luscious dripping innards with each subsequent bite—tasting the garden, the soil, the summer heat. People who chant, preposterously, I don’t like tomatoes, never had this experience, and I have come to assume never actually tasted a real tomato, otherwise it would be as if they had said, I don’t like ice cream, or spaghetti—nobody says that.
These same people eat ketchup and marinara without any problem, so I attribute their rejection of tomatoes to that infantile state of mind where anything of the slightest oozing texture is refused, an avocado or an egg, in other words, to an arrested state of development or for simply having been deprived of a real tomato’s sweet juicy goodness from infancy. What deprivation.
Tomatoes have not only gone down hill, all the way to the bottom, they have also gotten expensive. For those of us who require them as a staple, this adds insult to injury. So, we wait patiently for summer when some entrepreneurial soul with a truck and a loose business plan sets up shop by the side of the road, having picked up a load in Washington state and driven to the desert wasteland of tomatoes, Montana, knowing certain deprived aficionados in these parts will pay dearly for what he has to offer, and we do. Either that or someone purveys heirloom tomatoes, often selling them as specialty items to restaurants, as with morels, and they can be tasty, but why should they be special, rare, and expensive when ordinary tomatoes were once plentiful and just as good? And why do they call them heirlooms? Sounds like they were stored in somebody’s dusty attic with old photos and broaches since the Coolidge admini-stration.
In Montana, those who actually grow tomatoes often plant them indoors in pots, getting a head start on summer, so that they will mature before the weather turns. It’s a sad thing that God forced this condition upon us, but that’s the way it is, and reason to welcome any global warming that might come our way (Oh, the heresy). And, if it does, I say, bring it on, and let’s get some vines planted and sandwiches built so that at least in some respect life on planet earth will return to normal.
What I’d give for a sweet, plump, vine-ripened, juicy tomato.
—I’d even steal a few.