It’s hot, and humid; the air is buzzy with critters. Many of you are thinking, “It is hot and humid and the air is buzzy with critters, and I don’t want to do any cooking.” Up to this point you are correct. But then many of you are continuing this heretofore unimpeachable line of reasoning, and further thinking “…therefore it is Tomato Time.”
Do not bother denying having had this thought. I can hear you thinking it! Furthermore, I was standing behind you, astrally or whatever, when you were squeezing and sniffing the tomatoes at the supermarket and/or produce stand, yesterday. I saw the whole thing with my own two astral-projected eyes. For this reason I have skulked forth from my mountain hermitage to gong the Gong of Knowledge and cry out Charlton Hestonlike to you, the quaking villagers below: Tomato Time is not yet upon us.
But what of all these tomatoes, you are asking. This Safeway has tomatoes out the frickin’ wazoo. Surely this means Tomato Time is upon us. Do me, as well as yourself, a favor. Lift one of those so-called “tomatoes” to your face. Rotate it until you can find the produce sticker on it. Ah-HA! This “tomato” is from Canada (or Michigan)! Are you, at present, in Canada (or Michigan)? No, you are not. (Unless you are, in which case you can go to hell.) In fact you are several hundred miles away from those places. Do you know how a “tomato” from the vile frosted North came to appear at your local produce purveyor of choice, several hundred miles from the vile frosted North? Would you like for me to reveal this awful truth to you? Well I’m gonna, if you will chill out for one damn second.
The tomato grows in hot weather; if you have ever grown tomatoes, you know that the fruit, the tomato itself, does not even begin to develop on the plant or vine until the weather is good and hot; then it’s a hard, tart, green fellow for quite some time, up to weeks, as it grows; then it ripens rather quickly and must be harvested before it sags and turns gross. You also know that the tomato plant is deathly vulnerable to frost; an old farmer’s adage recommends not even planting them until Mother’s Day, to be safe, though in the era of global warming you can usually get away with planting them at some point in April. Then the little tomato plant grows stem and roots and leaves for a few weeks before it is ready to make some pretty yellow flowers, which soon become tiny, hard, tart, green baby tomatoes. This means, if you live somewhere where the weather does not get steadily hot until mid-May, then the local tomato plants do not even have any hard, tart, green baby tomatoes on them at all until June, at the earliest. It is now June. Your place of residence is not nearly ready to supply good local tomatoes!
Of course that does not stop people in places like New York and Washington, D.C. and, like, Dubuque or whatever from wanting tomatoes earlier than that; as the dastardly green-grocer knows, there is a healthy demand for fresh tomatoes year-round. The fiendish green-grocer meets this demand by purchasing tomatoes grown elsewhere and then shipped long distances by truck. (This is an appalling practice from the perspective of environmental stewardship.) Canada and Michigan may seem like odd candidates to be this fabled “elsewhere,” given that they are cold, dark, nightmare places! But the thing is, the weather is never good for growing tomatoes and other hot-weather produce in Canada and Michigan, where the pathetic “summer” lasts just long enough for the icicles to shorten a tad and then the sun dips back beneath the horizon for a further 11 months, so the oaves who live there instead of in better places than that have constructed some of the largest produce greenhouses to be found anywhere in North America (whereas places that are not miserably cold do not have need for these). They crank out greenhouse tomatoes year-round; in the non–Tomato Time part of the year (and even, shamefully, in the Tomato Time part of the year), they do big business supplying tomatoes to the rest of the continent.
The issue is, Canada and Michigan are a long way away from many millions of the desperate fools who will delude themselves into buying fresh tomatoes in January, or June, or November, and a ripe tomato will remain ripe only for a few days before it begins to sag and turn mushy and lose the plump, fresh, attractive look that helps move it quickly off of green-grocer shelves. You cannot harvest a ripe tomato in freaking Ontario (or, like, Lansing or some other place in Michigan), put it on a truck, drive it 1,100 miles at any plausible highway speed, and still have a ripe tomato to sell when the truck arrives at its destination. In fact you will have a pile of fuzzy fly-ridden mush if you do that!
The parties in this farce of tomato-selling address this two ways, neither of which is “simply abstain from this wasteful nonsense,” and both of which suck mondo butt. First, they harvest the tomatoes when they’re full-sized but not yet ripe; this means the tomatoes can be shipped farther (and sit on a shelf longer) before they’ll sag and decline, but it also prevents them from ever fully developing the flavors and textures and aromas that mark a truly ripe tomato. Second, they ship the tomatoes in refrigerated trucks; refrigeration slows a tomato’s ripening and decay, but also annihilates its flavor and aroma and changes its texture to a mealy, gross one. The poor abused tomato will still dutifully turn red, or a kind of telltale watery pink, betraying its wan, (metaphorically) bloodless character, but in every meaningful respect a tomato that is harvested green and shipped half a continent in a giant rolling refrigerator will never be ripe in any authentic way, because it will never possess the characteristics of a ripe tomato: vivid, intense flavor and aroma; explosive juiciness; deep redness all the way through the core; fleshy, fruity texture. Never! Never never never. It will only ever be mealy, flavorless, lousy. Evil.
The atrocity here, apart from the sheer and legitimately horrifying resource waste involved in bringing this monstrosity to your local Walmart to slake the tomato craving of goobers with no respect for Tomato Time, is that the longer this practice persists, the more people begin to regard the characteristics of a dogshit freezer-truck-ass Canadian tomato as What A Tomato Is Like. But that mealy flavorless softball is not what a tomato is like! A local tomato, grown in the summer in the sunshine, harvested at peak ripeness and eaten within the ensuing 48 hours—a real fucking tomato!—is nothing at all like a refrigerator-truck tomato from Michigan. They might as well belong to entirely distinct biological phyla from one another.
The solution is … OK, well, the solution is probably the kind of firm regulatory apparatus a responsible society would bring to bear on the produce industry, but which is anathema to the hyper-corporatized agriculture sector of this country. Failing that, stop buying dogshit Canadian tomatoes.
I can see that you are overwhelmed by this New Way. I can see that you have some questions. I will answer them for you.
What is your deal?
None of your damn business!
OK, but what is this “Tomato Time” you keep mentioning?
Tomato Time is the very narrow window of time during which local tomatoes, in pretty much any subtropical climate, will be ripe, and you have your best shot at finding and eating a fresh tomato that was harvested at peak ripeness within the previous couple of days.
But when, oh when, is it?
Tomato Time can vary from one area to another. But unless you live in a place with a tropical climate, Tomato Time does not even begin until midsummer, at the earliest. Here in the mid-Atlantic, Tomato Time does not begin until mid-July, no matter how desperately anyone wants a tomato sandwich before then. It peaks in early August. And it is over, dead and gone, by late September.
How will I, a doofus, know whether a tomato is good or bad?
Step 1: Look at the calendar. If it is not Tomato Time, then the tomato is bad. If it is Tomato Time, then proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: Look for a produce sticker on your tomato. If it is a product of a place you could not plausibly drive to and back home from in a comfortable day trip with some reasonable sightseeing once you arrive there, the tomato is bad. If the sticker confirms the tomato is local, or if you are shopping at a local farm stand or local farmer’s market and the tomato doesn’t have or need a sticker because by definition it is from a local farm, proceed to Step 3.
Step 3: Smell the tomato. Hold it right up to your frickin’ sniffer and sniff it. A good tomato is vividly and instantly aromatic; you do not have to be like “Oh, I think maybe I can smell this one!” You sniff it and the smell fills your nostrils and brain and your mouth begins producing saliva in frankly grotesque volumes. If the tomato just kind of maybe has a tomato-y smell, it is a bad tomato, and you can do better. If it has caused you to drool onto your shirt, proceed to Step 4.
Step 4: Purchase the tomato with legal tender and make a Caprese salad with it.
Fine but, like, I want a tomato right now.
Please phrase this as a question.
I want a tomato right now?
Too damn bad! Store up your tomato lust and unleash it in Tomato Time. In the meantime, canned tomatoes are fine. Make some tomato soup; make shakshouka, or chicken cacciatore, or a particularly effortful Bloody Mary. Cook some onions and garlic and an immodest couple of pinches of hot chili flakes in some oil until the aromatics are soft and the oil is orange, dump in a can of tomatoes, simmer it for a little while, and then toss it with some twirly pasta and a bunch of fresh herbs (in season!). It’s fine. The fresh, ripe, local tomatoes of Tomato Time will be more than worth it.
What if I can find a tomato from a hot place like Mexico?
Were you even listening? Do you even hear me at all? It’s like I’m talking to the freaking wall! If you do not live within a comfortable day-trip distance of whichever part of Mexico (it’s a big-ass country) the tomato came from, then it is a bad and indeed a reprehensible tomato. Fully 100 percent of tomatoes that are from farther away than you can take a day trip are tomatoes that were harvested before full ripeness and shipped in a refrigerator truck. All they can do is infect you with Lousy Tomato Ethics.
In fact, it’s axiomatic that if a tomato’s produce sticker lists any place as large as a whole freaking nation, or an entire large U.S. state such as Michigan or Ohio, rather than a local town or farm, it is a bad tomato that was grown and stickered for being sold to people far away from that place.
But I like the taste of mealy, disgusting, flavorless garbage tomatoes shipped half a damn continent from the sinister North in the back of a disgusting truck spewing diesel fumes into the sky.
Now you’re just trying to hurt me personally. I tell you I won’t stand for it.