(No) Accounting for Taste

Posted in John's Current Blog on January 24, 2015


Heirloom Bulgarian tomato growing on my 23rd floor balcony in Chengdu, China; July 2014

January 23, 2015. Savannah, Georgia. I’ve been growing tomatoes off and on for forty years. We all know that the best tomatoes are the ones that are ripened on the vine, but it is only in the past few years that scientists have been able to isolate the fruit’s flavor components. Winemakers have been demonstrating for years the differences that soil, temperature, sun, and rain effect, but wines are manipulated products. If we could place different vine-ripened tomato heirlooms and cultivars from around the world side-by-side in a tasting, we could perhaps come to a consensus of which varieties we would deem “best,” but there’s no way to do that: an heirloom Bulgarian grown in Bulgaria doesn’t ripen at the same time as an Aunt Ruby’s German Green grown elsewhere. And we also all know what shipping does to tomatoes.

Those two varieties are among my favorites that I myself have grown, but I know that the next perfectly ripened tomato that I pick from a plant on a summer’s day and bite into with only the warmth of the sun (and perhaps a bit of salt) will probably make me forget any other tomato I’ve ever tasted, at least for the moment. Besides the flavor components that scientists are discovering, there are also flavor differentials, as a Power Point presentation by the University of Kansas explains. As it turns out, taste is not so simple:

  1. Younger people prefer sweeter flavors; older, bitter.
  2. Age dulls the senses, so younger people can taste more, even if they don’t recognize or like what they taste.
  3. Illnesses and physical disabilities limit the ability to taste.
  4. One’s gender affects how tastes are perceived, particularly of musk.
  5. Ethnicity and personal background are hugely influential. What one has been exposed to, and how, matters.
  6. “Life altering experiences” affect taste (the quotes are the university’s, not mine).

Ilustration copyright by Marti Somers for Country Home magazine, August 2003

Having made a name for myself (and a living) championing (and selling) heirloom corn products, I have nonetheless mixed emotions about all the brouhaha surrounding many heirlooms, and not just tomatoes. When Ugly-Ripes®, an open-pollinated new variety, first appeared at the turn of the 21st century, I all but gave up trying to grow heirloom tomatoes, as I struggled to battle birds, squirrels, nematodes, insects, and viruses. I even admitted my failures in an article in Country Home magazine.

In 2009, I wrote about the controversial truths about tomatoes, much to the chagrin of some gardeners and chefs I knew. (Scroll down to August 24 on this page.) I’ll repeat some of the things I mentioned then, and add a few more:

  1. In his prescient Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (1997), the brilliant gardener William Woys Weaver notes, “Hybridizing over the past few centuries has altered the structure of the tomato flower, particularly the female part of it. Thus, many older types of tomatoes are more likely to cross than newer ones. As a rule, the tomatoes most likely to cross in a given garden are those with potato leaves [such as the wildly popular Brandywines], those with double-flowers (found on beefsteak tomatoes [of which Aunt Ruby’s is a variety]), and the currant tomatoes. All of these should be kept very far from other tomato varieties, at least 50 feet.” [Italics and words in brackets mine.] Tomato flavor has changed as well.
  2. Those heirloom vegetables you are buying at your farmers’ markets are not likely to have been grown 50 feet away from each other. I’ve had Cherokee Purple tomatoes, a sweet variety, that were tart, and heirloom jalapeños that had no heat, probably from being grown near sweet varieties.
  3. If you plan to save seeds for home use, Dr. Carolyn Male, a professor of biology at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, recommends “a distance of 3 to 4 feet within a row, and 5 feet between rows,” though she admits that she still gets 5% cross pollination. Weaver says that “all tomatoes should be kept at least 20 feet apart to insure seed purity,” and cautions growers to never save seed from fruits produced by the most easily pollinated double flowers. Dr. Male has raised more than 1000 different varieties of tomatoes in her Zone 5 garden in upstate New York. She is the author of 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden (1999).
  4. Just because it’s heirloom doesn’t mean it tastes better. I’m all for genetic diversity, but I recently had a much-touted, nearly lost to time but recently revived heirloom vegetable that seems to be de rigueur on the menus of New Southern restaurants. This was the third time I’ve tasted it. Meh. For tomatoes, it’s complicated. As Dr. Male warns, the “wonderful taste [of tomatoes] can only be appreciated if the fruit is completely ripe, and that determination takes a bit of practice.” I learned to look for a yellow blush on the blossom end of Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes. There might be a slightly pink blush as well, but if there is any hint of red or purple, the tomato is over the hill. And therein a problem lies:
  5. Fleshier tomatoes have less flavor (more on that to follow). The juicier the tomato, the more flavorful. That is why heirloom tomatoes, not bred for shipping, often taste better. However, the ripeness window is very small, and overripe is just as unpalatable as unripe. I am reminded of one of my favorite French sayings: “Il n’y a que dix minutes dan la vie d’une poire” – that is, There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear (when it is perfect for eating).

In another blog from 2009, I quoted celebrated chef Dan Barber’s editorial from The New York Times: “To many advocates of sustainability, science, when it’s applied to agriculture, is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic. It’s a nostalgia I’m guilty of promoting as a chef when I celebrate only heirloom tomatoes on my menus. These venerable tomato varieties are indeed important to preserve, and they’re often more flavorful than conventional varieties. But in our feverish pursuit of what’s old, we can marginalize the development of what could be new. That includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell…. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to [late blight].”

The more seeds and “jelly,” the more flavor

Besides soil, sun, and temperature, many things affect tomato flavor, from genetics to over-fertilization. In 2010, I was bowled over by the purplish hybrid Kumato® because in the dead of winter I had finally found a grocery store tomato with flavor. How was it possible? Scientists had finally unravelled the genome sequence of the berries (which is not only the real classification of these fruits that we treat mostly as vegetables, but also a clue to flavor). The UG gene, for example, which had long been known as the “uniform ripening” trait, as it turns out, was not present in many tastier varieties with lots of seeds. Remember when scientists figured out that it was really the ribs (the placenta) in peppers where most of the heat resides? It is almost common sense: since a fruit placenta transfers nutrients to its ovaries, it stands to reason that that would be the most flavorful part of a fruit. The locular jelly surrounding the seeds in the seed cavities and the placental tissue are where the flavor is in tomatoes, scientists had  proved, never mind that Americans want beefsteaks and many chefs and cookbook writers still insist on removing seeds from tomato dishes, per culinary tradition.

José Andrès and I had already begged for folks not to. In my blog from August 10, 2009 I had quoted an article that the celebrated chef had written for NPR: “about tomatoes and their humble seeds: Most people discard them when cooking tomatoes. But trust me, they are a hidden treasure. To harvest the ‘filet’ (as the cluster of seeds is called), take a sharp knife and slice off the ends of a ripe tomato. You’ll see there is an exterior wall of tomato flesh around the circumference of the tomato and interior walls running into the tomato’s center that separate it into segments. Gently cut through the outer wall of the tomato and one of the dividing walls. Carefully peel back the outer wall of the tomato to expose the seeds. Slide your knife underneath the seed mass and remove. Your aim is to keep the pulp of the seeds together to create tomato-seed ‘filets.’

“This seed mass, or what we sometimes call ‘tomato caviar,’ can be a new way of adding tomato flavor to a dish. It offers small, bright bursts of pure tomato flavor encased in an amazing natural gelatin and is super refreshing. I like to use them in salads or as a garnish for gazpacho.”

Sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory (or umami, as it’s now called) are the flavor components of foods. They are all found in tomatoes, but there are also volatile aromatics that come mostly from the breaking down of carotenoids, which are organic pigments such as the lypocene in tomatoes. Lypocene is an anti-oxidant thought to be a cancer preventative. Tomatoes and tomato-based food products such as juices, sauces, and condiments make up nearly all of the dietary intake of lypocene for most Americans. The riper the tomato, the more lypocene. And, amazingly, cooking, crushing, and adding ripe tomatoes to oil-rich dishes such as tomato sauces greatly increases the body’s ability to assimilate its nutrients. Studies have shown that cooked tomatoes are actually better for you than raw.

Enter the Tasti-Lee®. It’s perfectly spherical and small, so if you are looking for a big slice of a beefsteak tomato to fill your sandwich, forget it. But if it’s flavor you want, even in winter, treat yourself to a package. Big seed cavities = big flavors. And with up to 50% more lypocene than other varieties, not only is it better for you, but it tastes better. The American Heart Association has endorsed it. It balances sweet and tart. And it’s picked ripe and never refrigerated. (Tomatoes kept between 40º and 50º F will lose flavor. Below 40, they are essentially flavorless. Plants require a constant soil temperature above 55º.)

I guess I sound like a spokesperson for these brands, but, believe me, I’ve never been paid to endorse any product, ever.

Living so close to Florida, where the Publix grocery chain is based, I can buy Tasti-Lees all winter. They come in little flats that hold a pound. Interestingly, the tomatoes aren’t just grown in Florida. I bought one package that held four tomatoes. It was about 9” long. On the bottom of the box, I read that the company that had grown them, in Horse Shoe, North Carolina, “dates back to 1798 and after 8 generations, descendants continue to grow, pack and ship produce.” They were good, but not as good as the ones I bought a few days later in a longer package, about 10” long, and holding 5 tomatoes (pictured above). The package noted, “These Tasti-Lee tomatoes were proudly grown by Tomato Thyme Corporation – a family-owned and operated grower dedicated to implementing the best natural growing and food safety practices. No factory greenhouses, added gasses or artificial growing practices were used.” (Italics mine.) Both boxes noted that “Tasti-Lee is Non-GMO.” Tomato Thyme is in Florida. The tomatoes are delicious.

Hmmm… I have arugula and homemade mayonnaise and bacon in the refrigerator… I think I’ll have a BLT right now, in the dead of winter! (Though I guess I should call it a “BAT!”)

Read More