I have been in the small farm business for ten years, most of my time working with eaters, trying to get them to understand how food is grown and how to enjoy fruit and vegetables when they are in season.
Eaters have been confused by the availability of fresh produce throughout the year.
Tomatoes are such a clear example of a vegetable that is available year-round, but doesn’t taste the same year-round. You can get slices every day of the year at your favorite burger or sandwich shop. They are always on the grocery store shelves regardless of the temperature outside.
But at the same time, I bet you have tasted the difference between a tomato in August and a tomato in January. The appearance is similar on the outside, but when you look and taste inside, you come to understand that they are not the same.
These two different tomatoes have come from three advancements.
The first is that seed growers have created tomatoes that are better for picking, packing, and shipping. They do work towards better flavor as well, but that is not the priority.
The second is that food and agricultural scientists have optimized storage conditions for each crop. There are charts with specific temperature and humidity levels listed to maintain quality of each vegetable until it is ready to be sent to the supermarket. Produce is now harvested at precisely the right time then sent to a storage facility to live in a controlled environment until it sells. Tomatoes have more variance from other vegetables, because they can be ripened by exposure to ethylene gas.
The third is transportation. It is now easier for food to be imported and exported across the Mexican border and also throughout the world. When produce is not in season at home, you can usually get it in the supermarket from another place in the world where it is available. Many vegetables can be grown in Mexico, because of their longer growing season (and for less money, but that’s not my point today), then easily shipped to the United States because of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
We are not eating the best food that we can at certain times of the year.
Food is grown to withstand shipping and holding conditions and still look good on the supermarket shelves, not so that it tastes good.
So I propose to take a break from fresh tomatoes for the next five months, until May. Not because we can’t get a decent tomato, which might happen, but because we can’t get great tomatoes.
And why do you want to eat food that isn’t exceptional?
Can you just ask your server to leave the tomato off your hamburger or sandwich?
It’s not like you are going to enjoy that gassed, mealy, pink, slice of cellulose.
You eat the burger for the meat, maybe have some extra lettuce if you need a vegetable. In your salad, you can substitute some extra carrots. The wintertime is when carrots become the sweetest. The sugars stay in the carrots to keep them from freezing in the ground.
In May, the cherry tomatoes get started, and even if you do get tomatoes from Mexico, they are better when the weather allows them to ripen on the vine.
I know someone is going to mention the hot-house, but do we have to try so hard to grow tomatoes in the winter.
Allow yourself to take a break for a while. Think about the flavors in the foods that you eat. The tomatoes in the summer will taste so much better when we get there.
And, if you are one of those people that love fresh tomatoes, please buy them at the farmers market, where farmers pick them at their peak, and not grown so that they survive life in a box for a few weeks.
Tomatoes are such a clear example of produce that can be so much more when you eat them in season.
Take a break and when you bit into that red ripe tomato in July you will appreciate it so much more.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard