Threatened tariffs and unsigned trade agreements, such as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, could impact our taste buds in ways we cannot imagine.
In summer in Vermont, we have an abundance of fresh vegetables. Many of us may be avid gardeners, battling the elements and our lack of agility, to recapture the joy of providing food for the family table. Others may choose the easier path by having a small patio or deck garden of potted plants, edible or just for decoration. Failing the nurture of a personal garden, Farmers’ Markets provide a satisfying and nostalgic connection with our agricultural roots, real or imagined. In many cases, tomatoes will be among the chosen plants to grow.
My own acquaintance with tomatoes began as a small child in northern England where the climate was not suitable for growing tomatoes outdoors. My grandfather was a skilled and devoted gardener and he grew tomatoes in a greenhouse. This was a very special place for me:
A Place in the Heart
The potting shed, a sharp smell of half-burned coals
crackling in an iron stove.
Beyond the glass door, silence and warm air.
Six years old, alone in my grandfather’s greenhouse!
The smell of bone meal and moist clay pots.
Dense scented foliage above my head,
the spiciness of tomato leaves
and peaty soil …
In my teens, we also had a greenhouse in which my mother grew tomatoes. She would go out each day at noon to make sure the plants were well pollinated. She had a rabbit’s foot tied to the end of long cane with which she “tickled” the flowers as she put it, to make up for the lack of insect pollinators or breeze in the closed greenhouse environment. As more varieties of tomatoes, squash, and other warm-weather vegetables and fruits have been developed, over the years, for cooler climates, “tickling” of tomatoes is no longer necessary.
In the U.S. and most industrialized countries, there is a constant desire for fruits and vegetables “out of season," that is to say, year round. Some are imported from countries where the seasons are the reverse of ours, some are grown in hothouses in soil, or hydroponically, mostly in water, using added artificial light to mimic longer day length. Some of the fruit is picked green and artificially “ripened” using ethylene gas. Tomatoes grown in these artificial ways look lovely but are often lacking in the real taste of the naturally grown and vine-ripened fruit. The artificially induced color change doesn’t ripen the fruit, which actually changes the taste and texture; it merely changes the color.
Picking fruit unripe makes it easier to transport long distances without bruising. In 1977, at University of California Davis, plant breeders designed an almost cuboid tomato for the very reason to make packing and transporting easier. No mention of taste or nutrition here!
Speaking of nutrition, there is more to a tomato that just a pretty color. Tomatoes are a source of the antioxidant lycopene, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. They are also a great source of vitamin C, potassium, folate (a B vitamin) that everyone needs for tissue growth, especially pregnant women, children and teens who are all producing new tissue quickly; and vitamin K important in blood clotting. As in all cases, vitamins are often destroyed by processing foods so President Reagan’s 1981 support for ketchup and tomato paste as nutritionally equivalent to fresh tomatoes in school lunches was inaccurate and thankfully caused a public outcry.
Imported tomatoes from south of the border still have the real flavor because most of that fruit is picked vine-ripened. This is where tariffs can affect the flavor of our food, especially our winter fruit supply. Some U.S. growers of produce such as tomatoes see the threatened tariffs as giving their markets a boost as Mexican tomatoes will be more costly, but those who know real tomatoes will look at the labels before buying.
Labels on fruit and vegetables are given lip- service at best in the U.S., even though regulations demand that the country of origin must be displayed. If you can find the labels hidden in the nooks, crannies, and folds of everything from melons to peaches and tomatoes you can know where your veggies and fruit come from. It seems that there is a certain shame in admitting that the U.S. cannot provide all things for everyone all the time. This flies in the face of the reality of climate, of the seasons and not to mention the importance of trade with other countries. Trade itself seems almost a soiled concept at the present time.
There is a certain warm feeling that I have when I see a display of fruits and vegetables in a French supermarket, especially in early spring when local fields are bare and the weather is chilly. Along with potatoes and onions, cabbage and broccoli, garlic and beets from different, named areas of France, there are green beans from Algeria; tomatoes from the Canary Islands; oranges from Spain and Morocco and in April, most delicious gariguettes, the earliest strawberries from the Dordogne. All given their due as contributing to the delicious and celebratory display of fresh, tasty food. We could do that too. We have beautiful displays, now we need the courage to celebrate the origins of it all! This is the reality of climate difference and location; not a shaming process.
I wonder, is the tomato the bellwether, warning us of the trend to tasteless food? Adding “tomato for color” is no way to celebrate this healthful, tasty treat.