One key signifier indicating whether or not a restaurant practices within a local and seasonal sustainability model is the inclusion of fresh tomatoes on their menu between the months of November and April. For most of the United States growing a tomato at this time is either impossible, or just yields pathetic and tasteless results. So if you are a truly seasonal consumer, you will simply go without the tang of a fresh tomato for anywhere from 4 to 7 months out of the year (depending on where you live).
For years there has been a thriving tomato import business coming up from Mexico, with varying results. But the carbon footprint on that operation is pretty regrettable. Then there are the hothouse tomatoes that dominate the produce section of your supermarket. These are tomatoes that have been bred to withstand rough treatment, but still look good in the produce aisle for days, if not weeks. These tomatoes are usually harvested well before they are ripe and moderately ripened in transit. However, they taste of cellulose and unripe fruit, at best.
But there have been small leaps forward in an effort to grow an exemplary winter tomato, and do it in a way that serves a local market without gobbling up huge amounts of resources. As one would predict, these tomatoes have to be grown indoors in greenhouses, and are often done so without the use of pesticides due to the fact that they are protected from meddling pests. As a recent NPR report points out, the advantage of the new greenhouse model is that the tomatoes are grown not far from the cities where they’re sold and eaten. Many of these tomatoes are grown hydroponically, meaning they are grown without soil and gain their nutrients from liquid solutions. This method requires less land and less water than traditional summertime farming of tomatoes. But are the tomatoes worth the effort? Well, some say they are quite good, whereas others turn up their nose at a tomato grown outside of the warm embrace of the summer sun.
I personally don’t hold much affection for these winter greenhouse tomatoes, but maybe I haven’t yet had the exemplary tomato cross my plate. Does the idea of bringing a local tomato crop indoors to have the luxury of year-round tomatoes appeal to you? Should we just accept that some items, like tomatoes, are better enjoyed on a seasonal basis?