The item accompanying iceberg lettuce in the standard winter salad is the sliced or sectioned orange golf ball deceptively called a tomato.
Everyone over 50 knows that the tomato used to be a soft, juicy, sweet-sour fruit. It has been designated a vegetable because, unlike other fruits, it is not normally eaten for dessert. Grown in home gardens more frequently than any other food, it used to be eaten only in season, through the hot summer and until the first fall frost. During the other seasons, they could be consumed canned and frozen, sauced and relished, dried and pickled, and otherwise preserved.
Science has converted this succulent summer treat into a hard, orange, bland, starchy ball that can be sliced or sectioned and served “fresh” any time of year. It is served, insistently as I said, combined with iceberg lettuce in a distinctly American salad that derives its only taste from its heavy lather of dressing. Tomatoes have been bred to tennis-ball texture because the authentic ripe tomato is a tender and vulnerable object that resents being shipped.
Several years ago, someone wrote to the Washington Post saying that the soft and juicy backyard tomato was an act of subversion, because it’s a reminder of what a tomato ought to taste like. Actually, the effort to recapture for commerce the taste and seductiveness of the old-fashioned tomato has engaged some good scientific minds over the past half-century, which probably helps explain why the tomato was one of the earliest and most publicized of the foods subjected to biotechnological “improvements.” The FlavrSavr tomato, called the McGregor when it briefly hit the market, came from Calgene Inc. of Davis, Calif. It’s entirely appropriate that this community was a leader in the new effort to make tomatoes “ripen” without softening, since the University of California at Davis is the home of the hard, square, tasteless tomato, bred for efficient packing.
Using the magic of genetic engineering, the Calgene company took the gene for the enzyme PG out of the tomato chromosome turned it around so it didn’t work normally, and replaced it. While the fruit went on developing the acids and sugars that contribute to ripe tomato taste, the tomato’s pectin would remain mostly intact, although enough functioning enzyme was supposed to be left that the tomato would eventually soften.
The FlavrSavr was a commercial failure, since consumers apparently agreed that it didn’t taste like much. It was, however, the last biotech product to be voluntarily identified in the marketplace, and the technology has moved on so fast that you are regularly eating foods that have been genetically engineered without knowing it.
Meanwhile, I continue to produce glorious and varied fresh tomatoes all summer and fall, and to find interesting ways of storing them for the rest of the year. (See Oven-roasted Fresh Tomato Glut Sauce.) Those of us who live where it’s colder need to teach ourselves to put up tomato products for the winter while we encourage our farmers to experiment with season extension. Only then will we be heading for the goal a colleague of mine suggested we should be working toward, a sign next to the road leading into every community carrying a picture of that familiar hard orange globe, and across it, a red slash and the words, “this is a winter-tomato-free community.”