Really, NY Times? Advocating For Winter Tomatoes?
When reading the New York Times Dining section a couple days ago, my eye was drawn to the headline, “A Winter Tomato Worth Buying.” Lured in, I read further that the venerable Florence Fabricant herself was claiming that a certain tomato shipped up to New York from Florida called Tasti-Lee was indeed worth eating in winter. Fabricant described Tasti-Lees as well-known secrets in Florida, and the darling of restaurants there during the winter months when even Florida tomatoes are wan specimens.
At first glance, I glean a well-oiled marketing machine behind this whole winter Tasti-Lee tomato business that’s packaging and selling the latest exclusive food novelty item du jour. For one, it’s being introduced for the first time ever in New York City, no less the trendiest place in the US. Second, they’re not cheap; two tomatoes to a precious carton sell for $2.50. (Need to make pasta sauce? A case of 24 packages sells for $56, plus shipping.) And, finally, to give the product a certain cache, only gourmet grocers, Agata & Valentina, Eataly, Gourmet Garage and Tarry Market in Port Chester, N.Y. are selling Tasti-Lees.
Granted, I’ve never eaten a Tasti-Lee, but I’m not falling for sales pitch. Haven’t we been down this road before? This is how the produce sections in major supermarkets evolved into meccas of mediocrity. I imagine it all started with the mid-20th century housewife being enticed by the bright red hue of a tomato in January. Then, it was the blush of a peach in February. It was natural for these consumers who were accustomed to only storage fruits and vegetables in winter to feel a rush seeing this out-of-season produce at the A&P in January. But this is how we ended up in 2012 with oversized, thick-skinned blueberries that are too bitter to really enjoy. I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but is this the beginning of the death knell for seasonal eating? When eating something out-of-season that’s been shipped cross-country becomes trendy again, I start to believe that it might be.
Having said this, I appreciate the role that technology can have in creating a sustainable tomato. We do have some local companies doing great things with hydroponics. For example, McWethy Farms in Three Oaks, Michigan supplies many Michigan restaurants with their winter tomatoes, albeit mostly used to dress pizzas or be turned into sauce. I’ve tasted McWethy’s hydro tomatoes – they’re good. (Not as good as a summer tomato, but still worth eating.) I was once given an impromptu tutorial on McWethy tomatoes by someone who used to work there. His enthusiasm for why they were different from other hydroponics was infectious; he said McWethy utilized a computerized system that maximized sunlight to grow the tomatoes. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyway, I’m not saying that with the use of new technology we can’t ever have a winter crop that is decent – for winter. But when we start lowering our standards to invite good-for-winter crop to be shipped from warm weather areas like Florida, and package it as a rare gourmet item, I feel like we’re back at the supermarket with their clamshells of preciously-perfect “vine-ripened” tomatoes. That taste like cardboard.
I’ll save my tomato-eating for late summer, Flo, thank you very much.