Kojo chats with two reporters who spent the past year following the launch of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, D.C.'s new school for boys of color. Their stories are now featured in "Raising Kings," a collaboration between NPR and Education Week.
Most people agree that the best tomatoes are grown in their backyard. But as summer ends, most of the fruits we’ll prepare in our kitchens will arrive at the supermarkets after a journey of thousands of miles. We examine the scientific and culinary history of the humble tomato.
- Arthur Allen Author, "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato" (Counterpoint)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Ask most Americans what makes the perfect tomato and they'll point to their backyard. Abundant red fruits swollen by the summer sun, gracing local gardens and farmers markets for a few short weeks each year. But for the next few months, most of us will have to meet our tomato fix by trekking down to the grocery store, becoming part of a huge global industry that stretches from the Florida everglades to Italian mountains to factories in China.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's the story of a humble fruit that morphed into a $5 gourmet item, a story of scientists and plant breeders growing a plant in one corner of the world, picking it green and trying to figure out a way to get it to the grocery aisle thousands of miles away. And it's a story about our evolving taste buds and changing priorities when it comes to food. Arthur Allen spent three years searching for the perfect tomato. He joins us to discuss what he found. Arthur Allen is a journalist, author and former associated press reporter. His most recent book is, "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato." Arthur Allen, good to see you again.
MR. ARTHUR ALLENIt's great to be here.
NNAMDIIt's a staple of the American diet and a staple of cuisines all around the world, but the tomato is an enigmatic thing. We all know what a good tomato tastes like, but it's actually really hard to explain in words. At the beginning of the book, you take a crack at it. Could you read that for us?
ALLENSure, "That first bite is a somehow discomforting experience from the perspective of what food scientists call mouth-feel. The tomato lacks the crunch of an apple, the yielding smoothness of a peach, the snap of a carrot or the simple squelch of a grape. Tomato is a peculiar conglomeration of diathenis (sp?) slick skin, wet rubbery granular flesh, goo-imbedded seeds and emptiness. Tomato's an awkward fruit, unique in shape and flavor, yet transformable in a thousand ways."
NNAMDIThat's the best description I've heard.
NNAMDIWell, thank you.
NNAMDIThe best tomatoes you've ever tasted was in a small farming cooperative in Mexico. You describe it as having the taste of cantaloupe and fresh mango.
ALLENYeah, it's really amazing what gets into these fruit that are grown in the perfect climate and that are bred well. Sometimes some of them are heirlooms that just are hand-me-downs. And, you know, you just never know what to expect. And that particular time when I tasted those, the people who were growing them were running around like crazy trying to figure out what had gone right because they really couldn't figure it out.
NNAMDIIt was just that good.
ALLENIt was -- there was something they had shut the water off by -- because the pipes were leaking and somehow the lack of water had done this or something. They weren't really sure.
NNAMDIBut we're talking about a truly globalized product. The cans of tomatoes in the grocery store have followed a long path, not just from the field to the fork, but over decades of research that pursue perfection. Let's start with a look at where the tomato comes from, where it was first grown and how it became a staple of the American diet.
ALLENWell, so it -- the story starts in South America somewhere. There are 17 very close relatives of the tomato in South America and the wild tomato itself, but there's no sign that it was cultivated by the Peruvians, ancient Peru or Chile or anywhere because there's no words for it in any of the ancient languages there. It was cultivated beginning sometime in antiquity in Mexico and Central America. And almost every, you know, native group in Mexico and Central America has their own word for the tomato. And the one we adopted is the Nawadle (sp?) word, which is tomatl (sp?) . And now that, you know, tomato, tomatillo, tomat (sp?) so on and all of these languages, but it all starts with these Mexican words.
NNAMDIWhat caused you to embark on this odyssey?
ALLENWell, I wanted look at food and how it gets to us. I mean, I'm always kind of observing that everything in our civilization has human hands behind it. There are all these stories that get things to the way that we become accustomed to them like they were second nature and I thought it would be interesting to look at a food. And tomatoes are just -- a lot of great stories and a lot of interesting people.
NNAMDIArthur Allen joins us in studio. He's a journalist, an author and former associate at Press Reporter. His most recent book is called, "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato." We're searching for your calls at 800-433-8850. Some say tomatoes seem to be getting worse or blander these days. Why do you think that is or is not the case? It's food Wednesdays. Call us at 800-433-8850 or shoot us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website kojoshow.org where you can ask your tomato question or offer your tomato comment there. Today, Arthur, tomatoes are a staple of the Italian and Italian American food tradition. But I was surprised by how new tomatoes are to that food tradition.
ALLENYeah, they really didn't become a common part of the Italian diet throughout the peninsula 'til pretty late in the 19th Century. And even early in the 19th Century, a lot of travelers to places like Naples didn't see them on menus and -- but they were eaten by sort of the peasantry in Southern Italy probably back into the early 18th Century.
ALLENAnd when these people -- there was this great, you know, Italian diaspora at the end of the 19th Century and early 20th Century. About a quarter of the country left and went to the United States, Latin America, Australia, wherever and they demanded it. I mean, there were an instant market for these peasant foods from Southern Italy. And that's how Italian food spread around the world, through canned tomatoes.
NNAMDITwenty years ago, if you told me that people were going to spend $5 on tomatoes, you'd be laughed out of the room. What does that change -- say about the change of expectations when it comes to food?
ALLENWell, I think, never give a sucker an even -- no. I think that people have come to, you know, really value flavor and they are willing to pay $5 for a tomato that's got high flavor. And that's -- but there are certain limits on that, which is that you could pay $5 all winter long and you're still not going get a really delicious tomato because it's just nature's conspiring against you. But, yeah, I think that people have become a little bit obsessive about their food experiences, sometimes to a degree that, I think, they're sort of fooling themselves.
NNAMDII like your first answer. Are you suggesting that my pet rock for which I paid $50 makes me a sucker? By the way...
ALLENNo. I think it's very comforting to you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to call us -- do you think any tomato is worth $5? Call us, 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send us a tweet at kojoshow. You saw that tomatoes morphed from something we threw at politicians to something we see our politics in. Talk about a few of the better known examples where we use them as missiles for politicians.
ALLENWell, sort of through these interesting historical developments, you know, the mechanization of the tomato in the early '60's was a big deal in California because it took jobs away from farm workers there. And the farm workers, you know, movement was getting started. And then, you -- and there's a farmers/workers movement going on in Southern Florida actually right now. There's people who are paid very poorly so it's labor issue.
ALLENAnd then, there's a whole issue of authenticity that has to do with, you know, are your tomatoes real tomatoes? Are they fake tomatoes?" There's an issue of flavor. There's -- and then there's -- is it local? Is it brought from somewhere else? Is it an heirloom or is it a hybrid? There are all of these values that we attach to tomatoes as we do to many other foods. But in tomatoes, you do see all these things sort of lined up in a very interesting way. And they're parts of the way that people attribute value to something they eat.
NNAMDIWell, I'd like to name a few of my favorite politicians and you can tell me why they were the object of tomatoes. Richard Nixon.
ALLENWell, that was when he was in South America. And the Venezuelans were shelling him with tomatoes -- I think, a lot of, you know, conflict over Cuba and places like -- things like -- and support -- U.S. support for dictatorships.
ALLENWell, actually, that's a funny story. Because the Beatles were tomatoed in Manila because they failed to go to a dinner with Imelda and failed to show her support. And so, you know, Imelda got her boys out and they brought a lot tomatoes with them.
NNAMDIOne of my favorite politicians of the progressive party, Henry Wallace was tomatoed.
ALLENRight. Well, I mean, he was going through the South and spreading ideas of racial justice and, you know, the tomatoes were just better for hitting politicians back then.
NNAMDIWhy don't we see that anymore? You don't see tomatoes being thrown at politicians anymore. Is that because the humble tomato has now been raised in our esteem?
ALLENI don't -- well, it could be because tomatoes are too expensive. That's an interesting thought. But I think it's also because they've been bred to where they're quite hard. The skins are thicker and it's just -- it doesn’t make quite the satisfying sort of display on a white shirt that it did back in the day. And if it's -- and if you get them at the wrong stage, you know, they'll -- you're likely to be convicted of a felony if they, you know, injure someone.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We will start with Saroar in Springfield, Va. Saroar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAROARYeah, Hi, thanks for you and your guest. I enjoy the show. Actually, I have a question. First, I have a comment. My tomato didn't get ripe because of all the animals that are living beside us. Anyway, here's my question. I got -- I just got diagnosed with a stomach ulcer and doctor told me not to use tomato products especially from cans. I want to know what the deal with that is?
ALLENWell, I, you know, would hesitate to give medical advice, but I -- they have a lot of acid in them. I mean, that's one of the strong components of tomato flavor. And so maybe your doctor was worried that canned tomato products are more concentrated so you got more acids there. And they're also packed with citric acid. I think, so that could be why.
NNAMDIWell, let's go back to the history of tomatoes. A key development in the American love affair with the tomato was a breakthrough in canning technology. Tell us about that.
ALLENWell, there were these two fellas in California in the Central Valley -- Davis, which was a real cow town in those days. And one of them thought, well, you know, just got the idea to make a machine harvestable tomato. And he -- there was a friend of his who was working in the engineering department. He figured out -- he said he would design the machine. So they were working together.
ALLENOne was designing the machine and one was designing the tomato. And, you know, everyone thought they were crazy until there started to be labor shortages in California and then everybody wanted this machine. And it caught on and in a couple of years, everybody was using them.
NNAMDIWell, today, most commercial tomatoes are grown in California or Canada or Florida. But in the early days of the canning industry, Maryland and Pennsylvania were key parts of this industry. You actually visited an old canning facility nearby.
ALLENYeah, it was up in Pennsylvania, a place called Furmano's, which actually the family name was Furman, but they wanted to sound Italian so they changed it to Furmano.
ALLENAnd it was a nice little operation, really small cannery with maybe 20 guys working there. And I went out during a harvest and the only laborer they could find were guys off of a local -- a work release program in the local jail and they were running this machine. I mean, you could just -- the contrast between that field and fields I saw in California was really striking. I mean, the yields and everything are 10 times higher in California.
NNAMDIThan they were in Pennsylvania?
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. Thank you very much for your call. If you'd like to call, 800-433-8850 is the number to call or you can shoot us a tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking tomatoes with Arthur Allen, he's a journalist and author whose most recent book is "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato." We're talking your calls at 800-433-8850. I'd like to talk about bland tomatoes because many people feel that commercially produced tomatoes today are much worse than the ones they remember eating 10 or 20 years ago. Is that true, in your opinion?
ALLENYeah, I mean, 20 years ago, probably so. I mean, the further the tomatoes have to travel to get here, the worse they're going to be, in general, although there's some exceptions to that. The way that tomatoes are grown and produced when -- during the winter months when they're coming from Florida or Mexico is they're usually picked green and they're gassed with ethylene, which makes them turn red and it sort of ripens them. But a lot of the elements that go into a tomato when it's on the vine just aren't there if you pick it green. And so it -- the flavor, it's been, you know, tested in laboratories. I mean, people have done blind taste tests and looked for the chemicals that are -- count for flavor. It just isn't there in these tomatoes.
NNAMDIDo you think tomatoes are getting worse or blander these days? Why do you think that is or why do you think it is not the case with the tomatoes you've been finding or growing? 800-433-8850. For most tomato growers, however, Arthur, taste doesn't seem to be the focus. As a consumer, I would imagine it would be the top priority. So why is it not the main goal for tomato growers?
ALLENWell, because the -- there's this -- a bit of disconnect. If you're a farmer in Florida, you're getting paid by the ton and the price varies, you know, seasonally, depending on the supply and demand. And 60 percent of what they're producing in Florida is for fast food uses and so it really doesn't matter what a tomato tastes like if it's going to go on a Burger King hamburger, really. And then -- so there are efforts, you know, to make them better. But a lot of what's happening is that people who have these greenhouse operations are able to produce better tomatoes using seeds mostly from the Netherlands and Israel.
ALLENWhere -- because the Netherlands had this uprising from the Germans about 20 years ago. The Germans started complaining about all the winter tomatoes, which were all grown in greenhouses in the Netherlands and there was a big uprising among the German consumers. And the Dutch, you know, started going afield looking for better flavor that they could put into their greenhouse tomatoes and they found it and include -- with the assistance of these Israeli breeders. So now, we're starting to get some of those tomatoes. And a lot of the tomatoes you get in the winter that are from greenhouses, they -- like the Compari brand, they come in these clam shells. Those actually have some pretty decent flavor.
NNAMDITo the telephones. Here is Paul in Arlington, Va., with a word on the history of the use of the word tomato. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi. Yeah, I hope you'll excuse my bringing in a somewhat ancillary subject, but I'm curious. When your guest talked about the word tomato being missing from indigenous South American languages, well, did -- when you refer to ancient languages, did you mean the indigenous languages that are currently spoken in South America?
ALLENWell, I don't have in my -- I couldn’t tell you, for example, whether every language down there has its -- whether there aren't some words that have come along. But my understanding is that people who are familiar with languages as they were spoken or the -- their modern ancestors of those ancient languages say that they don't have original words for tomato. And I get this from sort of good sources. But it's possible, I suppose -- I mean, I'm wondering if you've heard of some, you know, somebody you...
NNAMDIWhat do you know, Paul? What do you know?
ALLENYeah, what do you know? Spill it.
PAULI don't have any expertise. I just -- I wanted to ascertain whether you were talking about current day spoken languages or ancient languages as reinstructed or ancient languages that are...
ALLENWell, it would have to be current day because I mean, most of these -- I mean, they don't have -- there's no written -- I mean, I don't think any of the South American languages even have any, you know, epigraphs or, you know, any of the Asian writing, it can be sort of read and pronounced today, I don't believe.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Paul. Here is Luther in Ashburn, Va. Hi ,Luther.
LUTHERYes. Is this tomato show?
NNAMDIYes, this is the tomato show.
LUTHER(laugh) Yeah, actually, I come from Cameroon and we have the tomatoes just like the ones we have over here, but then they look a little bit more smaller and they taste really good. I mean, you can just harvest them from the garden and eat them right there. When I go here, I went to the grocery and got the tomatoes, which look a little bit larger than the ones we have over there and taste so different. I don't know...
NNAMDIIs it possible that he was eating cherry tomatoes and...
ALLENNo. They probably -- I mean, I imagine in...
NNAMDI...just taste different.
ALLEN...Cameroon maybe your -- they're using these, you know, older varieties of tomatoes are -- where the seed is cheaper and farmers grow them and they probably don't have the same shelf life. You probably -- they don't last as long, but they may have better flavor. I mean, there's nothing saying that you couldn't have really delicious -- in fact, all of my west African friends were upset that I didn't make it to West Africa during this trip because they said, oh, you have to taste the tomatoes there.
NNAMDIWhich is why we got that call from Luther. Luther, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Earlier on, I said that we now see politics in our tomatoes. This book seems to be in dialogue with a lot of food writers...
NNAMDI...who argue that our entire food production system is out of whack. Some people say that we need to recapture a tradition of agriculture that was much more local, much more focused on fresh produce and traditional farming techniques. You say that yearning for the good ole days only takes us so far and that the tomato is a great example. Can you explain?
ALLENYeah, I mean, I think that the idea that people are, you know, focusing on growing their own food or buying food locally, like tomatoes, is great. And I think, you know, the idea of supporting local farmers who are interested in producing different varieties, heirloom varieties, I think is wonderful, but I don't think it's sort of gonna feed the world. And I actually don't think, just from the perspective of what I saw on the tomato industry -- and I can't speak for all aspects of food, but I didn't really find anything that -- well, there were parts of it that I didn't like or that seemed unhealthy.
ALLENBut that was mainly for the workers in Southern Florida, who were really getting squeezed by these very low wages, which has to do with the low, you know, amounts that are paid by fast food companies. When I saw these giant mechanized tomato fields in California, though, they'd seem pretty -- they were producing something pretty healthy, even, and wholesome and cheap. And what's wrong with a cheap, wholesome tomato product?
NNAMDIAre there, in your view, good guys and bad guys in the agriculture industry?
ALLENThere are some bad guys who've done -- fallen in -- there's some really interesting corruption scandals, one of which I investigated in this book, but that involves, you know, pay off, the usual stuff that people do in any business. And every business has its particular way that you can scam the system and get rich. And so there was some tomato big growers out in California, actually one in particular, who is now imprisoned for sort of changing the reports on the soluble solids contents of his tomatoes. It was in the news about...
NNAMDII remember that story.
ALLENBut I didn't find, overall, that any of the industries in general were really bad guys. I mean, they were all sort of trying -- sort of doing the best they could. But, you know, that's not -- that certainly isn't how the grow -- the workers in Florida saw it.
NNAMDIWell, this e-mail we got from Nikki. "Please ask about the connection between research by extension service, home canning and tangy tomatoes. Talked to a vendor who said that earlier varieties were sweet, lower pH. Home canning during the World War II years and fear of spoilage called -- caused research for tangier, lower pH varieties. True?"
ALLENUm-hum. Yeah. I have heard that and it had something to do with just --yeah, getting safer, you know, not having -- there were some accidents, you know, poisoning episodes that had to do with the pH. That's not something I investigated a huge amount, but that is true, yeah.
NNAMDINikki also says, "I work at a food co-op at night. When we get tomatoes, sometimes I could cry looking at the box. They're gorgeous, perfect spheres, so red, yet it's so likely that they were refrigerated and have lost flavor. One bite bled. My mom had had a refrigerator sticker of a Dracula figure with the words, don't suck the flavor out of your tomatoes, never refrigerate."
ALLENThank you so much for that. Very important point, Nikki. Everything else we're talking about is secondary to that basic thing. Do not refrigerate tomatoes.
NNAMDIThank you, Nikki. Here is Amber in Warrenton, Va. Hi, Amber.
AMBERHey, how are you?
AMBERGreat. Well, my question will help settle an old family debate so -- my mom is from South Jersey and she swears that New Jersey tomatoes are the best. Is there any truth to this?
ALLENThat I have heard from so many people in New Jersey that it must be true. I mean I think that Jersey tomatoes, eaten in Jersey, there's something about the sandy soils there that seems to be really good. And if you take that same variety, the Rucker's type, which is what's big in New Jersey and you try to grow it in California they don't taste right. So there is something about, you know, a good year in Jersey that apparently you get really good tomatoes.
NNAMDIAnd you've gone...
NNAMDIYou've gone to festivals all over the world, right?
NNAMDIAmber, who was arguing against your mom and what tomato did that person favor?
AMBERWell, we always just give her a hard time saying -- she's always telling us they're the -- she says the corn is the best there, too. So we'll -- we -- I mean, it is pretty tasty, we have to admit. But we're not from New Jersey, just she is, so we give her a hard time about it.
ALLENYou do wonder whether it's just 'cause there's so many people from New Jersey who don't live there anymore and they're all nostalgic, but I don't know.
AMBERThat's a good possibility, for sure. Thanks a lot.
NNAMDIAmber, thank you very much for your call. This one we got from Keith in Silver Spring. "It's my understanding that it took quite a while before Europeans would eat tomatoes, fearing them poisonous."
ALLENYeah, there's a lot of theories on that. Some of the theories, you know, have to do with the botanical similarity of tomatoes to poisonous plants, like Bella Donna and Deadly Nightshade, but I don't buy that. I think it's just 'cause they tasted different and strange. And so they were just -- it was just easier to let the doctors and the botanical people say, oh, you shouldn't eat this. Let's continue eating the junk we've been eating before. But no one really knows exactly why, but there definitely was a great fear of that for centuries.
NNAMDIThen you can either validate or negate this story, is it true or urban legend. I once heard that George Washington was the first U.S. official to publically eat a tomato, as it was believed to be poisonous. Apparently, he liked it and asked for another. Any truth to that?
ALLENThere are varieties of that. The -- you could put Washington in there, put Jefferson in there, put...
ALLEN...you know, the mayor of Salem, N.J. in there. There's definitely -- it seems to have been a hardy perennial that they were poisonous that was refuted in this way of, you know, by example many times sort of in the 18th century.
NNAMDIHere's Claire in Leonardtown, Md. Claire, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAIREI'm a tomato fan. As a younger woman, when I had lots of energy, I used to can two or three bushels every year. And I'll tell you home canned tomatoes are much better than most of the commercial brands. But I live in St. Mary's county now and I don't want you all to think that there aren't good tomatoes because we grow wonderful ones here. We have that same sandy soil that you were talking about in New Jersey. And we also have some farmers, one in particular, who grows heirloom tomatoes and breeds back his own heir, you know, from the heirloom stock to get the best of the qualities of the heirlooms. And he has some phenomenal items, whether they're slicing tomatoes or the small grapes. And my own personal thing is that when wintertime comes, about the only thing I want in my salad is a grape tomato.
NNAMDIHow is this growing season in St. Mary's county, Claire?
NNAMDIHow was this growing season in St. Mary's county for tomatoes?
CLAIREWe had lots of them. There were -- they were late kind of starting because of the rain. And then, with the hot weather, they just come on and come on and come on, and come on and they're still here. I mean, there is still -- there's so many local farmers who have tomatoes. But then, you got to know your farmer because we have some who are actually more like the processing plants that he was talking about in California, where they want them to last long enough that they don't rot until they sell them and so they tend to pick them a little green. And then, we have some who pick them good and ripe and they're the most delicious things you ever saw. And in September, tomatoes are just very plentiful here until the weather starts to really chill off and it hadn't yet. And so...
NNAMDIHere's Arthur Allen. You were saying?
CLAIREYou know, I could...
NNAMDIYou were saying?
CLAIREI could put two tomatoes in my salad, woo-hoo.
ALLENWell, yeah. That -- I mean, that's -- I totally agree with you. I mean, I'm always impressed by -- I mean, one thing I learned doing this book, I really don't know that much about farming, but I sure gained an appreciation for it. And, you know, there are people all over this country who are really good at growing tomatoes and other things and my hat is completely off to. And it's true that in the -- during the season, locally, you can get a lot of good tomatoes around here and it -- although it varies from year to year. I don't think this was a very good year, what I tasted, but maybe St. Mary's way was a bumper year.
NNAMDIClaire, thank you for your call. You interviewed scientists and tasted some of the cutting edge food being created in labs and not all of them were delicious. In fact, the researcher described one of them as tasting like toilet water, if you're familiar with the taste of toilet water.
NNAMDIAnd you yourself tried one that tasted minty. These tomatoes were not made available commercially, were they?
ALLENSo these genetically modified -- these guys who are doing genetic modification in labs, they're really doing it to -- partly just to see if they can. And then, that technology could probably be used to breed some of these traits into tomatoes using sort of classic breeding techniques, not using -- not doing it in a lab. And partly, they're just trying to see, you know, what happens if you change this gene. How much does this actually effect the flavor? So this particular mint was -- you know, they just changed this one gene and inserted it into this tomato. And it did, you know, pump up the volume of a -- something that's in all tomatoes is oil of winter green, basically. But they pumped it up, you know, 100 times normal and it tasted, you know, not like a tomato should, but it was kind of amazing they could do it.
NNAMDICan't imagine minty in a tomato.
NNAMDIIn many ways, the tomatoes we note is the product of centuries of genetic manipulation. But many of us draw a distinction between selective breeding and genetic modification or GM foods. What's your take?
ALLENYeah, I mean, I'm not convinced -- I mean, I guess I would feel that if there was a GM tomato that had -- that was wonderfully nutritious, much more nutritious than anything else and really delicious, I wouldn't be against it 'cause I don't think that there's anything, per se, wrong with it. However, you know, I'd say maybe a third of the people, of consumers, just wouldn't want to have anything to do with it, another third wouldn't be able to tell the difference. So you're not going to get somebody sinking a huge amount of money into a genetically modified tomato unless it's really extraordinary and I don't see that happening any time soon.
NNAMDIBut scientists and food companies invest years of research and millions of dollars into building a better tomato. Can you tell us a few of the factors that go into constructing a tomato?
ALLENWell, I mean, a lot of it is -- you get to...
NNAMDII mean, there's an entire chapter...
NNAMDI...in this book called the architect of the tomato.
ALLENYeah. Well, the architect of the tomato, that's this guy Charlie Rick who wandered around South America collecting tomato genes from all these wild tomatoes. And one of the things that he did was he was on the Galapagos and he got these wild tomatoes. And he couldn't get them to germinate when he brought them back to California so he kept feeding them to these different animals. They wouldn't germinate. Finally, he had a friend in San Francisco who had had a giant Galapagos turtle and he fed them to the -- and this was how it turned out in the wild, these seeds germinated, was passing through the guts of a Galapagos turtle.
ALLENAnd when he got these out, he grew them -- they did germinate. He grew them and he crossed them with a normal tomato and he produced this -- a trait on the tomato, which is that the tomato falls off the vine right at the -- so that it doesn't leave any piece of the stem on it. This turned out to be a really important trait for canning tomatoes because you shake these tomatoes off and then they go in this giant pile of tomatoes. And you don't want them to have any of the stems so that they jab the other tomatoes and cause them to go bad. So he -- so this was, you know, modification.
ALLENIt wasn't something that was in a lab. It was finding something in the wild and introducing it into, you know, our food system. But that kind of stuff goes on today, also, and mostly genetic techniques are used to sort of find out where in the DNA these particular traits are. It's not so much bringing weird things like fish genes into a tomato or -- it's more just locating particular things in tomatoes that are out there, either wild tomatoes or...
NNAMDIOr in his case, in turtle poop.
ALLENOr in turtle poop, yeah.
NNAMDIWading through hundreds and hundreds of pounds of turtle poop.
ALLENRight. You had to use dye eventually.
NNAMDIHere is Dan in Washington, D.C. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANHi. I just came back from our summer home in Vermont and I had a lot of green tomatoes, unfortunately. So I went to the internet and found a very good new way for me of ripening them. You put them in -- you wrap them individually in paper, put them in a cardboard box and close it with an apple or a banana. And apparently the apple and banana exudes some sort of gases which aids in the ripening. They've been quite fantastic.
NNAMDIThat's the same formula for ripening kiwis, as a matter of fact, that I picked up online.
ALLENYeah. It's ethylene. It's the same stuff that they gas them within the -- but it's natural ethylene.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Thank you very much for your call and your tip, Dan. If you'd like to call us on tomatoes, the search for the perfect tomato, you can call us at 800-433-8850 for any comments and questions on tomatoes or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Arthur Allen. He's a journalist and author. His most recent book is called, "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomatoes." We've been getting a lot of calls, Arthur Allen, saying "if you can't refrigerate tomatoes, how soon should you use them?"
ALLENYou can keep using them until they don't taste good anymore, until they fall apart and, you know, I mean, there's no point at which they're going to kill you.
NNAMDIGrowing a delicious tomato, though, is only half the battle. The other half is transporting it. Why is it so difficult to bring ripe tomatoes to stores?
ALLENWell, it's amazing how fragile a tomato is. I mean, when you put it in the refrigerator, they'll go bad. When you touch a tomato, you know, if you jab a tomato with your finger, you set off this bruising process inside the tomato that quickly spreads throughout the fruit. So when they're nice and hard and green, they last longer in shipment because they're -- even when they're green, they're being jostled a little bit. It's just very hard to transport them and, you know, people -- the way the transportation system works, you're looking at something gets picked that's not going to maybe be sold for another two weeks, and it's just they're not going to last that long if they're picked red and they're picked in Florida and driven up here in a truck.
NNAMDIHere's Anne in Chevy Chase, Md. Hi, Anne.
ANNEHi, how are you?
ANNEGood. I enjoy your program daily.
ANNEAnd I'm calling because I grow tomatoes in the non-scientific -- it's not a scientific question -- on my terrace. And with the rain and the wind this year, it blew all the small baby tomatoes off the vine. I ended up with one tomato on a plant. And I wondered if this gentlemen knew how to cover them or what you do to protect them during the weather that isn't so good?
ALLENWell, if you're growing them in planters, I guess you could bring them inside.
ANNEThat sounds like a real logical way to handle it.
ALLENHigh wind will...
ANNE...because they'd be difficult to cover, I think.
ANNEOkay. That's a good answer and I'm enjoying your program and I'll take my tomatoes out...
NNAMDILooks like we'll need the people from the extension services again in the next year on the broadcast. Anne, thank you for your call. Here's Karen in Bethesda, Md. Karen, your turn.
KARENHello, Kojo. I love your show.
KARENI'm calling because it turns out my husband has a reaction to tomatoes. He gets like flu-like symptoms. And there is -- in researching this, we discovered a website that is called, I believe, tongue-in-cheek, tomatoesareevil.com and I wonder if your guest knows about the research or any research relating to some people who might be sensitive to the tomatoes.
ALLENYeah. I've heard a little bit about this. And I mean, I think people are allergic to lots of things. I've heard also that there are some people who can't tolerate red tomatoes, but can -- and I guess it's the lycopene in the red tomatoes, which is normally what we consider sort of the -- one of the key nutrients in a tomato. But they aren't -- you don't have lycopene in a yellow tomato or an orange tomato. And there are, apparently, some people who can eat these. I had a friend of mine that was trying to make a tomato sauce with yellow tomatoes, sort of golden tomatoes, that people like your husband would be able to eat.
KARENOh, I'll definitely experiment with that. Thank you very much.
ALLENYeah, try it.
NNAMDIThank you. Try that, Karen. This e-mail we got from Andrea. "I'm a lifelong tomato lover and was wondering if tomatoes have ever been known to be addictive. Both my father-in-law and I eat them as daily snacks, the others might eat apples. And when I found out I was pregnant, the only thing able to sooth my morning sickness was a ripe, juicy tomato."
ALLENWow. That, you know, you floored me.
NNAMDIGot a tomato jones.
ALLENYeah. That's really, really great. I think that you...
NNAMDIGot to go into tomato rehab.
ALLENYeah. I think maybe you should sort of get on -- get with the tomato -- one of the marketing boards and see if you can make somebody do some ads for them.
NNAMDISince you love them so much. Here's Dion in Lanham, Md. Dion, your turn.
DIONThank you, Kojo. Good afternoon, gentleman, enjoying the show.
DIONTwo questions. First one is, how many varieties of tomatoes are there and then is it a fruit or a vegetable?
ALLENThat's great. Good questions. Well, there are 75,000 varieties of tomatoes listed in sort of seed banks around the world, but they figure there's a lot of duplication so maybe there's only 10,000 varieties or 20,000. There's an endless number of varieties. I just keep hearing about new varieties all the time. And the -- as to the second question...
NNAMDIFruit or vegetable?
ALLENThat is, it's botanically a fruit by -- legally a vegetable, according to the Supreme Court, none other than our own Supreme Court. Which in, I think, 1906, there was a case before the court brought by an importer who didn't want to be -- who, I think, at the time, New York was charging duties on fruit -- or duties on vegetables, but not on fruit and so he was claiming it was a fruit. And the import -- the duty officer wanted to charge him as a vegetable and the Supreme Court found that part was right. They're a vegetable because of how they're eaten, sort of what part of the meal they usually occupy.
NNAMDISo if there's botanical -- if it's botanically a fruit and legally a vegetable, wouldn't that pose some problems for the marriage laws in the county, whether or not the fruit can get married to the -- okay. Here's Nick in Upper Marlboro, Md. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKKojo, I listen to your show all the time. I love every topic, but today, the subject of tomatoes, it's like you're talking about the greatest love of my life.
NICKNow, I wanted to talk a little bit about -- I grew up in southern New Jersey. You've had many comments about the specialness of tomatoes from southern New Jersey, and yeah, my grandpa had a farm. And I would smell these trucks laden with fruit going off to the local processing plant and it was -- it was the sweetest perfume in the whole world. It really was. But I had a conversation this last weekend with one of my favorite Amish farmers. He lives in Lancaster. I live in southern Maryland. And I said, how's your farm doing this weekend? He -- not this weekend, this year. And he said, well, it's been rough. And I said, and I'll bet you produce the tastiest tomatoes ever. He said, yeah, how do you know that? I said, well, because we've had a little bit of environmental stress, not enough rain. The tomatoes are trying to push out sugars.
NICKAnd that gives us tasty sugars. I think the point I'm trying to make here, and I'll make it very quickly, is that those of us who only buy our tomatoes in supermarkets are not fully aware of the fact that taste and the beauty of the these vegetables are determined by growing conditions as well. I'm a huge fan of heirloom tomatoes, Cherokee purple, Brandywine. Your author knows all about these things. But...
NNAMDIYou're suggesting I don't?
NNAMDIYou're suggesting I don't know all about these things?
NICKNo. I'm suggesting you do.
NNAMDIOh, thank you.
NICKNo. No. No. I'm sure you do. I love a lot of the Russian varieties. Imagine a tomato from Russia. But the point is that we're sitting here just thinking you go to the supermarket and buy a tomato, but it's a reflection of growing circumstances. And what may be a bad year in your garden can produce the loveliest tomatoes you've ever tasted.
NNAMDIWell, Nick, you're right. Our author does know all about these things and I don't, which is why I'd also like to add to your observation this one we got from Marie in Rockville. "I'll never forget reading an article in the New Yorker in the 1970's about the changing nature of the tomato industry, lamenting the loss of the Jersey truck farm tomato because they didn't travel well. The industry had development standards for tomatoes that were tougher than what was in place for car fenders, and was not particularly interested in taste at that point." Good observation.
ALLENYeah. I mean that's definitely true. And the thing is, I think you're always going to find this conflict between farmers and consumers because I mean, the farmer is going to get paid for the tomatoes that make it and that don't get thrown out on the way. And so, you know, they have a preference tend to really want to have tomatoes that have thicker skins, which can be detrimental to flavor. And even organic farmers and all the rest of them, you know, unless they're growing tomatoes where they can be guaranteed, you know, to get $2 a pound from some specialty store or restaurant, they're going to be worried about the yields. And the yields are better when you have thicker skins, which unfortunately, makes them not taste as good often.
NNAMDINick, thank you for your call. One of the more memorable characters in your book is a man named Kanti Rawal, a geneticist and plant breeder. In a way, he represents both sides of the food table, the business science side and the simple breeder who just wants to make a good tomato. Tell us a little bit about Kanti Rawal without giving away all.
ALLENYeah. Kanti's this great guy who I met him down on this farm in southern Mexico where he was working as a breeder for a company called Del Cabo, which is -- they produce small organic tomatoes, cherries, grapes, and these pears and things, down in southern Baja, and then they move north as the year goes on. And they, you know, are all sold basically in the U.S. Trader Joe's sells them, and sometimes you just see them as Del Cabo tomatoes in stores. These people he was working with are these, you know, completely idealistic former Peace Corps types who really wanted to start this farm down there where the -- start a business where they could have these local farmers make a decent living producing these tomatoes for export to the U.S.
ALLENNobody's getting rich, but they can afford to stay on the land and they don't have to go work as -- in hotels or cross the border. So they're very idealistic. And Kanti really just cottoned to them. I mean, he's the kind of guy who he likes a good idea and he's very humanitarian. He started out working for Del Monte, and then he worked on the flavor savor, which was this genetically -- the only genetically modified tomato that ever, you know, was sold anymore. I mean, he thought it was a great idea. He's just one of these people, he's very enthusiastic about new technology and new ideas and making something better.
ALLENBut he's not discriminating in the sense that he's not all industry or he's not all, you know, a do-gooder. He just, you know, wants to help people and make things better. So I found him a great sort of guide through this whole business because he had done everything from make canning tomatoes for Del Monte to producing this Frankenfood, you know for Calgene, and then ended up, you know, working for these organic farmers down in Mexico.
NNAMDIA go-to tomato guy.
ALLENHe was. He was -- I was so lucky I met him.
NNAMDIHere's Darnell in Washington, D.C. Darnell, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DARNELLHello. Mr. Allen, I had a quick question -- or one to ask. Have you ever attended or participated in La Tomatina, the tomato fight in Valencia, Spain?
ALLENI regret to say that I have not. The only trip to Europe that I could afford for this book took me to Italy. I felt that Italy has precedence, and I just couldn't make it to the Tomatina. But I sure would have liked to. Have you been there?
DARNELLNo. No. I just heard about it and have seen pictures of it. It looks disgusting. (laugh)
DARNELLAnd I just wanted to know if you participated in that.
DARNELLHave you, Kojo?
NNAMDINo. I go there -- I plan on going there right after I go to the running of the bulls in Spain.
DARNELLOh, okay. Okay. (laugh)
ALLENRunning of the tomatoes.
NNAMDIRunning of the tomatoes. Darnell, thank you for your call. I'm glad you mentioned your trip to Italy because when people think of tomatoes, they think of Italy and fresh, sweet tomato sauce. In your visit to Italy, did your tomato experience hold up to this common perception?
ALLENWell, it did and it didn't. I mean, I found everything I ate there that had tomato sauce on it was delicious. But one thing I found very interesting was that the Italians care about flavor. They don't really care about authenticity. I mean, we think of Italy as a place where food is very authentic. They cared about the flavor. So the big tomatoes that everybody was telling me about was this tomato called a pachino which grew in Sicily. And I went down there and it turned out I had thought oh, it must be some ancient tomato they've been growing there for centuries.
ALLENIt turned out to be something that was an Israeli tomato that had the shelf-life gene in it, and it was just the soil there is perfect for growing tomatoes, very high salinity, lot of sunlight. Just a great place to grow tomatoes. But it -- and people in Italy were enthusiastic about it, and they didn't recall care, you know, where it came from. It was just a good food.
NNAMDIAnd finally, this from Sue. "It seems to me that anyone who is willing to pay $5 for a tomato must have more money than sense. It's a trendy thing for the affluent, certainly not for the general population. Surely, how does it taste any different and be worth that amount of money? Maybe I'm just an English cheapskate or maybe I do have common sense. I picked up a pair of brand new, never worn, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans at the Goodwill store for just $6 yesterday. $5 for a tomato? Never. Ha-ha" says Susan, the cheapskate Brit in Thornville, Ohio, she calls herself. Arthur Allen, thank you very much for joining us.
ALLENOh, it's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIArthur Allen is a journalist and author. His most recent book is called, "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato." "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," is produced by Diane Vogel, Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez, and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. The engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman has been here. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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