The Premise of a Tomato

vintage tomato productsWe’re starting to get a few cherry tomatoes from our ‘garden.’* We’ll never have enough for a salad because the FYG, The Boy and I love them so much that they pick them every day and we split them and eat them immediately.

Because the crop shall always be eaten, I bought some grape tomatoes at the store yesterday to make some tomato and olive shish-ka-bobs (on toothpicks) for lunch. We didn’t do that, but we did eat them with lunch. Then I made a tragic mistake. I popped one of those home-grown cherry tomatoes grown in my front yard into my mouth, and then I ate one of the store-bought grape tomatoes.

The contrast was an epiphany. I don’t know why- I knew that home-grown tomatoes taste better than store-bought. I’ve known this for years. In fact, with my first large garden full of tomatoes, I was unable to eat store-bought tomatoes for two years after we moved away and no longer had a garden. It’s like comparing the nectar of the gods with pond scum, except pond scum probably has more flavor than the store-bought tomato.

The home-grown cherry tomato is something I can still savor hours later. The zing, tang, and zippy taste of summer bursting in my mouth of the home-grown product made the tasteless, rather plastic store-bought version seem like a cruel joke- like when I was four or five and convinced my little brother that the mud I had mixed up in a jar was actually chocolate pudding.

But so what? Everybody knows home-grown tomatoes are divine and make store-bought tomatoes taste like plastic. I might just as well write a blog post extolling the virtues of water that is actually wet.

But I got to thinking about that study finding no nutritional difference between organic foods and nonorganic. How do they measure this, exactly? Well, I don’t know, but I imagine they separate out the known nutrients one would expect from a tomato and measure them in each sort of tomato and then compare the data.

The known nutrients.

Which brought me back to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. More on that tomorrow.

The Premise of a Tomato, Part the First
The Premise of a Tomato, Part the Second
The Premise of a Tomato, Part the Third
The Premise of a Tomato, Part the Fourth
The Premise of a Tomato, Part the Fifth
You may also enjoy:

Notes from The Omnivore’s Dilemma 
Notes on food and puritanism from In Defense of Food
Food and Politics (from In Defense of Food)
The Politics of Food and Nutrition (from In Defense of Food)
More comments in response to reading In Defense of Food- POlitics, food, and do-gooders

Organic vs Conventional Eggs
Reading labels

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16 Comments

  1. coffeemamma
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Have you read his new book 'Food Rules'? An amazingly succinct version of his other books (Hubby read it in an hour, and it's changed his life forever). I buy one for everyone in our lives who think we're weird for making the food choices that we do.

  2. sandyc
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Funny, I've been buying the grape tomatoes at the store because they taste more like tomatoes than the large "orange tennis balls" sold as tomatoes. (I got the term from a book I read a few years ago, written by a woman who gardened in New York along the Hudson River. Sorry I can't remember the name of the book.) I planted our garden late this year so my tomatoes probably won't be ready for at least another month. I LOVE homegrown tomatoes. They are the inspiration for my garden and take up 40% of it.

  3. wibbles
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    That study on organic v. non-organic ignored nutrient differences where they didn't support conventional monocrop agriculture. And Pollan's work has been quite valuable, but he needs to step up for meat and dairy, as do many pro-organic, pro-local, pro-small farmer types. Which is why I recommend Joel Salatin and David Gumpert as good followups.

  4. DHM
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    I read Salatin years before I even heard of Pollan, but Gumpert is a new name to me.
    I am noticing some more inconsistencies in Pollan than I did the first time around, but information about the complexity of nutritional science, far beyond the ability of science to explain, is fascinating.

    One of the funnier inconsistencies is his labeling as 'Puritan' anything he considers negative or too strict. One of the "Puritan" ideas, that bad things happen to people who eat bad things, is just as easily described as a Hindu idea- Karma, in fact.

  5. Sophie
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    "There's only two things that money can't buy, and that's true love and home-grown tomatoes."

  6. anna
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    However, store bought tomatoes are nutritionally superior to no tomatoes. And like you said, we can't all garden and don't feel like paying $6/lb at a farmer's market. Growing food is expensive and difficult any way you slice it.

    One of my fave bloggers writes that there is praise to be given to food quantity as well as quality (which I think you have covered on your blog before too) and furthermore, if/when they ever discover how to mass produce "home grown" tomatoes, you can bet they will produce them and sell them. Because people are usually doing everything possible to make a living, and when someone discovers high quality mass produced tomatoes, you can bet that will be a bandwagon that people jump on pretty quick.

    FWIW, I am not a fan of either Michael Pollan or Joel Salatin. Whatever they want to do with their lives is fine but preaching about it is just annoying.

  7. DHM
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    I'm really not sure why growing a tomato plant in a five gallon bucket is expensive, though. The bucket was free, the compost was free, the plant was 1.49- and I could have invested a bit of extra attention and just planted from seeds.

  8. anna
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Another quick thought – there has been this meme going around christian circles that poor-quality commercial food is some kind of a conspiracy foist upon us by "Big Food" companies and/or government agencies. I have no problem agreeing that neither of these have the ultimate knowledge of food and probably would be better off not existing; however, the idea that commercially grown food is a conspiracy is nonsense. Poor quality commercially grown food is a fact of life on a fallen earth and nothing else.

    We actually have the best quality most abundant, cleanest food that human beings on the earth have ever had in millenia and it is still not good enough for us, so what is wrong here? If we think back to a time when all food was "organic" and "local", we don't have a healthy population that reflects that. We have a lot of disease and starvation. I believe that we should be more grateful that we are able to go to a store and buy some cherry tomatoes for a few bucks.

    (Disclaimer: I grew up on a farm.)

    As an aside, the following link is to the federal statutes pertaining to "organic" farming. Scroll down to section 600+ to find the list of substances allowed to be used in said "organic" farming.

    http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_10/7cfr205_10.html

  9. DHM
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    There is indeed a significant difference between what most of us mean by organic, and what the government means. In fact, many people I know (myself included) would rather by unlabeled local produce than produce labeled 'organic' and found in the store

  10. DHM
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    "However, store bought tomatoes are nutritionally superior to no tomatoes."

    Maybe. But something causes that incredible difference in flavor, and science hasn't found out what it is. So that flavor is a signal of something we don't yet know or understand about that home-grown tomato, and I think it's likely it's something that is good for us.
    So maybe some other vegetable that doesn't lose so much flavor when grown under lights is an even better nutritional choice than store-bought tomatoes.

  11. Brandy Afterthoughts
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    If it tastes different, it has to be different. Could be the sugar content. I don't mean bad sugars. Have you ever looked into glycological science? Apparently, the more ripe a food when you pick it, the greater the variety of sugars. This is true whether something is grown organically or not. Commercial growers pick tomatoes less ripe than you would at home for practical reasons, but the content of the various sugars suffers because of it.

    In other news, I actually think that making food "with love" adds to the nutrition… 😉

  12. Hagsrus
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    This story from a few years back has always stuck in my mind:
    http://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=352424&page=1

  13. Hagsrus
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I remember my mother and I were astonished that one of my aunts managed to grow totally flavorless tomatoes, apparently oblivious.

    Offset by an uncle who produced delicious ones. Ironically, one especially good type was called "Money-maker".

  14. DHM
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the link- I can only shake my head. When I was a kid, friends of mine used to grow watermelons on their dad's farm and then they sold the watermelons for pocket money for the year. They lived in town and their backyard bordered a really busy street, so they set up their stand outside their backfence and did very well.
    They told me that they had learned the sweetest watermelons had cracks or scars in the rind, but that a lot of their customers didn't believe them and wouldn't take the watermelons with scarred rinds. I have found that their advice is good, and the sweetest watermelons will sound hollow when thunked, and will have what looks like old scars from surgery in the rind. But it's gotten harder and harder to find those scarred watermelons at the grocery store.

  15. B. Durbin
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    It's expensive in terms of time and sometimes climate. In some places, a tomato won't grow no matter what you do— and for some city dwellers, by the time you've spent four hours in transit to and from your eight-hour job, the idea of gardening is beyond exhausting.

    I live in the best climate for tomatoes and even so, they're pretty labor intensive, at least if you don't want them eaten by pests. Tobacco hornworm is rife in this area, you need to water appropriately lest you get blossom end-rot, and, well, right now there's a quarantine on because of Oriental fruit fly and my dad can't give me any tomatoes! It is too disappointing.

    (I have a two-year-old and an infant, so this year I'm just growing gourds. It will take a lot of labor to get the rest of my designated area garden-ready.)

  16. DHM
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    I think it's important not to get too wrapped up in the tomato itself, even thought I did use the tomato as the sort of epitome of all this. It is true that in some places tomatoes just don't grow. But I have grown tomatoes in a bucket on my driveway in rainy and overcast Washington state, and I do not have a green thumb. Growing a plant in a bucket is not really like gardening- you water it, basically, much like a houseplant.
    I didn't grow tomatoes in Colorado because I could not get anything to grow there, so I do know it's not always possible. But it is possible to grow sprouts anywhere, to grow lettuce in a small container on a windowsill.
    Friends of ours in town are growing a garden at another friend's house in the country. We don't have much garden space for veggies here, so we grow a few extras at the Equuschick's house. While these options are not always available to everybody, I think more information is always better than less.
    The majority of the food we buy is not organic, because we can't afford it and it's not readily available here. But I do buy organic grains in bulk and that ends up costing less than conventionally grown grains at the grocery store.
    Pollan makes other points as well ( I actually don't think his emphasis on organics is the strongest point in his book)- one of the more important ones, I think, is to eat a variety of real foods. If you can only eat one kind of organic fruit or vegetable, or a variety of conventionally grown, I think it's far more important to eat the variety.
    Eating seasonally is one way to get that variety, and it's also cheaper, so there's a win-win.
    The more information we have the more informed choices we can make- and we all make choices based on our priorities. My mother did commute four hours a day, and she always had a garden anyway because that really mattered to her (one of the reasons was taste, another was cost). I wouldn't do that in her shoes, I do not have her energy, so I am not trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody. But then, by and large, I think guilt trips are journeys people choose to embark on, not kidnappings.

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