Guest Columnist

Conquering the great tomato taste crisis

Cherry tomatoes grow in a field at Bass Farms in Mount Vernon on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Cherry tomatoes grow in a field at Bass Farms in Mount Vernon on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

My fellow Americans, our country faces a tomato crisis. After a long, late winter, followed by a tantalizingly brief spring, a torrential summer has swept tomato plants along to their most insipid, bland and downright tasteless season ever.

Tomato lovers still shudder as they recall last summer’s Great Drizzle of ’17, an unseasonably wet July and August, when soaking rains doomed all garden tomatoes. But now palsy grips our pruning shears and we quake down to our clogs at a second year of the most inclement weather to be visited on our fair backyard tomato patches.

Let us not waste our tears on vain hopes, based on decades of Italian movie poster-style propaganda of perfect tomatoes radiantly ripening under a cloudless sky. A perfect, God-given climate the Mediterranean may be, but it exists only there (as well as a few pinpricks of land across the globe, including Northern Los Angeles). Yes, it creates the only conditions preternaturally conducive to the perfect tomato. But it ain’t Kansas.

Most of the world’s other heavily populated places have two things in common: wet summers and dry winters. The rest have one or the other most of the time. Only the Mediterranean has the exact opposite, even tending to the dry in winter. With the massive ice pack from many mountains feeding the rivers and aquifers below, rain is unnecessary in the great basin along the Mediterranean Sea’s deep, broad northern coast.

The birthplace of Western Civilization also is the site of the domesticated tomato’s annual apotheosis. There is a relationship — no humidity in the skies, day or night, for about five months. You can reckon the cosmos to your heart’s content. And nothing is better for tomatoes.

But we are not Turkey, Greece, Italy, Southern France, Southern Spain. No! We denizens of melted pots (including Mexico, tomato’s birthplace) must draw our weather cards each year and take our chances at the cosmic casino’s tomato poker table. But, my fellow Americans, I taste your pain. Last summer’s penned up demand for the savory red fruit has been frustrated, yet again, by this summer’s tragic downpours. Two years of tasteless tomatoes; “Big Boy” is crying uncle.

What to do, to whom to turn? Suffer another year? I know: I receive your lamentations by letter and email. No phone calls ... yet. Such cruelty the weather gods visit on U.S. tomato fanatics! Buy canned tomatoes from either Cento or Colavita? Such acts of betrayal! It’s a scandal! Their tomatoes are grown in Italy? Bah! BAH!!!

More like, “Baaah, Baaah!” Quick, get the map, he urges himself. Where’s that Italian deli? The one with the imported canned tomatoes? Cento’s is from Campania, the heart of the South. Let’s go!

An hour later our heroic fool stands before the imported Italian grocery purchases arrayed across his kitchen counter. “What now?”

Now are bottles of Italian olive oil, plastic cylinders of Italian basil, onion and garlic powder. Big cans of Italian-grown peeled tomato fruits. Outside his backdoor throbs the wearying tropical junglelike heat and humidity. The skies darken. Water-swollen tomatoes, Beefsteaks in name only, wink their redness at him.

“It ain’t Kansas,” he mutters, at war with himself. How did I buy this overpriced junk? His head, heart and taste buds are in a circular rotten-tomato firing squad. He cackles giddily. Turgid side shoots, called “suckers,” stir in his mind.

Deep within his soul he creates a “map” of the Mediterranean to design, garden-like, on his lawn. He imagines using small, treelike, determinate tomato plants to mark the outlines of the countries. He begins to hum, mindlessly.

Suddenly his family bursts into the kitchen, and everyone opens up the Italian groceries. Our hero brightens and starts cooking the Centos.

“Um, they smell like tomatoes, Daddy,” a child says. His wife’s hand brushes his for a moment, but it feels like an hour. Slowly the clouds start to separate. A light breeze rustles a tree. Late afternoon rays begin to fill the sunroom. Outside, the garden’s illuminated beds and rows rise up and shine.

“Maybe there’ll be some good tomatoes next month…,” our hero muses, grinning.

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• George Ball is chairman and CEO of the W. Atlee Burpee Company and past president of The American Horticultural Society.

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