Yes, we know they taste better, but here’s why

Photo By McKenna Ingerson And Summer Meili

When I was a teenager growing up on Long Island, my grandmother — my mother’s mother — lived with us. Two or three times a year, she would drive down to Maryland to visit her other daughter and her family. And, if it was the right time of year, she would stop on the way down and again on the way up to buy tomatoes in New Jersey.

Jersey tomatoes were an object of veneration in my house. My grandmother’s return would be hotly anticipated, not for herself but for the produce she carried. For two or three days after she got back, dinner table conversation would consist mostly of praising the tomatoes she’d brought and Jersey tomatoes in general.

Me? I couldn’t tell the difference between those tomatoes and the ones my grandmother brought back from the supermarket. I thought the adults in my family were idiots for waxing so enthusiastic about something that was so ordinary.

You have to remember, though, that I was a teenager and therefore, by definition, a jerk.

Turns out they were right. Supermarket tomatoes are crap, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Tomatoes are a seasonal fruit. (Yes, they’re fruit, but that’s a topic for another time.) Unfortunately we want to eat them all the time and not just for two months out of every 12. So supermarkets have to have them shipped in from places like Florida, where they can be grown year-round.

We also are very picky about the produce we buy. If it’s small or asymmetrical or bruised or off-color (not that way), we leave it in the grocer’s bin. We buy tomatoes based on appearance; we don’t find out how they taste until after we’ve bought them and taken them home.

These two facts, taken together, explain why the modern tomato is so useless.

• Tomato manufacturers have bred their plants to produce tomatoes that are big, round, red and difficult to bruise. Taste was not a factor.

• If tomatoes are picked when they are ripe, by the time they get to the store they’re overripe and therefore less visually appealing. So growers pick them and ship them before they’re ripe. Unfortunately, that’s also before they’ve produced sugars and other compounds that create flavor.

• Tomatoes need lots of sunlight to produce those flavor compounds. During the summer, the sun is high and the days are long, so everything works out fine. But tomatoes grown in hothouses during the winter don’t get anywhere near as much sun, so they don’t have anywhere near as much flavor.

• Growers want to maximize their crop. So they cultivate vines with lots and lots of tomatoes on each one. Unfortunately, the plant can only produce so much sugar and such. Instead of being divided among two or three fruits, now it gets spread across 20 or 30. Maybe 100. I have no idea how many tomatoes grow on a commercial vine. But it’s a lot more than two or three. So instead of a few fruits getting a lot of flavor compounds, a lot of fruits get a little bit of flavor compounds.

The result is tomatoes that look great but taste like tap water made solid.

On the other hand, people who frequent farm stands and farmers markets are apparently a bit more forgiving when it comes to visuals. So the tomatoes sold at … say, the farm stand my grandmother stopped at, were probably bred for flavor rather than looks.

This also explains the recent trend of growing heirloom tomatoes. In this case, “heirloom” simply means “an old type of tomato that was used before growers started selecting for appearance rather than taste.” Yes, some of them are weird looking — tiny, purple, blobby, whatever. But they taste like tomatoes.

This also also explains why tomatoes grown in a backyard garden can be so good.

I say “can be” because it isn’t always the case. If you plant supermarket tomato seeds, you’ll get supermarket tomatoes. But if you plant decent tomato seeds, you’ll get decent tomatoes.

OK, so tomatoes grown by small growers during the summer can and often do taste great. Was my family still nuts for waxing rhapsodic over Jersey tomatoes in particular?

Maybe not. You see, the flavor of the fruit a tomato plant produces is heavily influenced by the soil in which it’s grown. (The same is true for grapes; French vintners call this “terroir.”) 

If you want to grow great tomatoes in your backyard, not only do you have to start with great seeds, you also have to pack your soil with the appropriate nutrients. (I think you start with potassium and phosphorus, but beyond that you’ll have to check with someone who grows good tomatoes. I know nothing about gardening.) 

Adding the right nutrients to the soil ensures a sweet tomato. But the specific flavor of the tomato depends on all the various minerals and compounds present in the soil in that particular area.

As an adult, I’ve come to recognize, sometimes too late, the wisdom in much of what my parents said and did. I realize how little flavor supermarket tomatoes have. I have experienced the wonder of a tomatoey-tasting tomato. And if I ever find myself in New Jersey in August … .