Tomato season is finally here. The red (yellow, orange, if not mottled green), juicy, oozing with vitamin C, sweet but slightly acid pungent fruit is in season. And it is a fruit, not a vegetable. We just call it a vegetable.
I have been waiting for this tomato moment, but I have a confession. Once happy with my garden (except for the ongoing battle with Moby Dick, the woodchuck), I now have tomato envy. The garden seemed to be going well. My varieties of tomato seeds have produced luxuriant plants. My first try at potatoes is successful since I accidentally sowed them late enough to avoid the rot from the early season rains. The pea crop luxuriated in that early season cold and damp. And the string of hot dry days helped produce an extraordinary green bean crop, vigorous carrots, ravishing radicchio, not to mention lettuces, kale, beets and chard. The herbs have been prodigious, especially the ones that made it through the winter thanks to the heavy snowfall (it has been a great year for lavender). The broccoli and Brussels sprouts were thriving until the woodchuck came along. Even my perennial gardens (especially the digitalis) have been rich in color and texture.
The most popular vegetables in the United States are potatoes and tomatoes.
Let’s face it — there is nothing as delicious as a new potato, just dug from beneath the soil. You can gently boil them and then eat them with a little butter or olive oil and a smidgeon of mint. You can slice them thinly, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and then roast. The other night we roasted new potatoes and smeared them with fresh batch of pesto that I made with newly harvested garlic, and tiny basil leaves pruned from the plants in the garden, a few pine nuts and good olive oil.
Tomatoes contain about 3 percent sugar. But, like meat, they also contain savory glutamic acid, as well as aromatic sulfur compounds (for more on the actual chemistry of a tomato, check Harold McGee’s book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”), which may explain why they complement meats so well. I prefer them fresh in salad, or in gazpacho. I make tomato sauce and freeze it in one-quart bags for the winter. As I write this column, we are on a camping trip. We buy local vine-ripened tomatoes by day, and serve them along fresh grilled chicken, or fish by night. Yum.
But this satisfaction was until the other night, when I wandered out to the organic garden at Middlebury College and saw their tomato crop. What a magnificent sight! It is not simply the varieties of tomatoes they are growing this year, but the health and vigor of the vines, hardly a spot of blight, and the obscene quantity of fruit that caused … well, I am ashamed to say it … this sinking feeling of envy.
I am growing six varieties of tomatoes this year: Glacier Salad, San Marzano Paste, Amish Paste, Matt’s Wild Cherry, and two varieties grown from seed that my friend Vint sent up from northwestern Connecticut. All seem to be growing well, or so I thought. We have just harvested our first tomatoes, about a week later than last year (our first tomato in 2010 was harvested July 24).
It is just that my tomato vines are not bearing the vast quantities of fruit that the college vines are.
Is it the varieties? The soil? The staking? The pruning, or lack of pruning? I dug back into my garden and cooking books to discover what I had failed to do with my tomatoes and discovered a wealth of information.
Tomatoes, a member of the nightshade family — which also includes potatoes, eggplants, capsicums (chili peppers) and tomatillos — originated in the New World (along with sweet potatoes, pumpkins, squashes, kidney and lima beans, and avocados). Given the current ubiquity of tomatoes, their worldwide popularity, this is surprising. The first time I actually enjoyed eating a tomato was in Greece, at the age of 12, when our lunch salad was filled with six-inch-wide slices of sun-ripened red tomatoes, pungent and flavorful, grown in volcanic soil under intense Mediterranean sun. So I mistakenly thought that along with our form of government, such as it is, and Greek myths, tomatoes must have sprung from that ancient culture. Not so. They were not imported to Europe from South America until the 15th and 16th centuries. They were not initially popular, and in fact did not really resemble the fruit that we eat today, which has been developed and coaxed into a vast array of varieties for different climates and soils.
Before they were domesticated in Mexico, tomatoes started out as bitter, berry-like fruits growing on the west coast deserts of South America. The name “tomato” comes from the Aztec term for “plump fruit,” tomatl. Called “love apples” during the Renaissance, they were thought to be poisonous and didn’t become popular until the 19th century.
Tomatoes need a lot of sun, and they need rich soil, full of organic matter. They do well in raised beds where the soil warms up faster (so they get a good start), but this also necessitates monitoring a steady quantity of water, since the soil should be moist, not soggy. Drought slows them down, but too much water causes the fruit to crack. Tomatoes do well with a layer of mulch and space: give each plant 6 square feet.
Most of my tomatoes are “indeterminate” and I wonder if I would do better with “determinate” varieties. Determinate varieties are shorter and bushier, and set fruit just once. Indeterminate vines continue to grow and fruit until stopped by fall frost. The determinate fruit arrives pretty much all at once, so if you are interested in canning a large crop all at once, this is a good choice. The indeterminate vines mean you will have a continuous crop of fresh tomatoes for picking and eating over more of the season. How could I go without that possibility?
As for pruning, if you are staking your tomatoes, they need to be pruned to one stem. And the suckers that grow in the leaf axils need to be removed. Folks grow tomatoes in round wire cages, stakes, or on trellises. You can also just let the vines flop on the ground. I put a layer of straw beneath them to help keep them dry while they ripen.
So, we’ll see what my tomato season produces. It is not looking prodigious. The college has ordered 500 pounds of tomatoes from the organic garden for next week, and I would say they are going receive a prize-winning crop. In the meantime, I’ll savor my tomatoes, one at a time.