It seems there is a place for canned tomatoes.
Growing the Winter Tomato
Imagine a poem that is perfect in shape but refuses to say anything. And yet it sells well because it is the only kind of poem available for more than half the year, and people insist on reading poetry, even out of season. That is the winter tomato. In redness and roundness it says “tomato,” in every way except the one that matters: flavor.
Earlier this month, the federal Agriculture Department put an exception into its rules to let a tomato called the UglyRipe be shipped out of state. Those rules say a tomato must be at least 2 9/32 inches and no more than 2 25/32 inches in diameter. The UglyRipe doesn’t meet those specs — it’s ribbed at the top and not uniform in shape. It is also reputed to taste very much like a tomato.
Perhaps the real virtue of the UglyRipe’s “ugliness,” which is nothing compared with the deformed beauty of true heirloom tomatoes, is that it helps us see how strange the uniformity of regular winter tomatoes really is. For a backyard grower, taste is everything. But in commercial production, taste is an abstraction. It is what’s left after all the other criteria for a good commercial tomato have been met: disease resistance, regular shape, consistent ripening, the ability to withstand picking and packing and shipping, a long shelf life. Taste is too subjective, according to the Florida Tomato Committee, to judge tomatoes by.
The UglyRipe may be a better tomato. After all, its growers have selected for better taste, not perfect shape. But one thing that would certainly make the UglyRipe a better tomato is a different way of growing it. Santa Sweets produces organic UglyRipes, but they are few and hard to find. It now grows its conventional tomatoes without using agricultural chemicals that carry reproductive risks — but it still uses methyl bromide, a powerful, ozone-depleting pesticide, to fumigate the soil in which conventional UglyRipes grow.
Under the terms of the Montreal Protocol, the use of methyl bromide was supposed to be phased out completely by January 2005. But for the past few years, the Bush administration has claimed an exemption for “critical uses,” one of which is growing winter tomatoes in Florida. We used to consider it a luxury to eat fruits and vegetables out of season. But what we eat out of season has been machined to withstand the rigors of the supply chain and produced in ways that only our ignorance can sustain. The truth is that there is no luxury — nor critical use — in it. Even an ugly, better-tasting winter tomato isn’t worth the price.