Saturday, July 23, 2016

Tomato Love, Interrupted

This is a post about consuming food. Not eating it mind you, but consuming it. There's a difference. Stay with me.

In the early-eighties, I read an article in Harper's (or was it Atlantic?) about the evolution of American agriculture as it specifically related to the tomato.

The article detailed how tomatoes had become big business, and as such were too important to be left to the vagaries of nature. Management was required. And as a result, modern tomatoes bore only a faint resemblance to their previously unmanaged selves.

They shipped better. Lasted longer on store shelves. Were uniform in their appearance. More disease-resistant. And most importantly, matured faster.

Now, that is wonderful stuff. Seriously. I mean, who wants a tomato that can't hack a week in a produce bin? Or whose delicate sensibilities are offended by seventy-two hours in the back of a truck?

Not me.

But unless you're a businessman, you may notice one glaring flaw. One big, giant omission: taste. As in, how did they?

Oh. Yeah. That. Well...we're working on it.

So. We were left with tomatoes that resisted disease and lasted longer on store shelves and were uniform in appearance, but really didn't taste that great. The juicy tomatoes which practically demanded to be eaten in a bath tub appeared to be a relic of my long-ago youth.

Which is why an article in the Chicago Tribune on a Rockford-based tomato-grower named Mighty Vine aroused such interest. They were dedicated to growing tomatoes that possessed, in addition to the many fine qualities imbued by corporate farms, taste.

Could the notion of a functioning congress be more radical?

All was well for several weeks. They were available at the local chain grocery store and I willingly coughed-up a little more than normal for these blood-red beauties. I had forgotten what it was like to slice a tomato and leave a small puddle of juice behind.

They immediately made salads more vibrant. On hamburgers, their undiluted tomatoness paired perfectly with a slice of raw onion, thankfully rendering ketchup irrelevant. Hell, they made everything better.

And then they were gone.

I'm guessing you know this game. It's hide and seek turned inside-out. You search for a product, enjoy it and then the manufacturer/distributor/wholesaler or retailer hides it.

Be it Iguana Foods chile rellenos, the Moroccan marinade I used on pork chops, Pepper Jack Doritos, Whole Foods garlic and Parmesan bread, Mars Bars or Palermo's far too briefly available frozen flatbread pizza topped with pesto and mozzarella, if there's something manufacturers suspect I (and perhaps you) enjoy it will be made unavailable before you've stuffed the grocery receipt in your pocket.

(While not entirely edible, I'm wondering how the Suzuki Kizashi departed these shores without me ever buying one.)

MBAs with too little to do have identified a certain personality type prone to this experience. What they haven't figured out is how not to sell to us. Which in turn raises another question: how will they know when to discontinue it?

So while I am driven to the edges of starvation, the shelves at my favorite grocer remain stuffed with far too many varieties of chicken sausage, gluten-free tea, turkey bacon, wasabi-flavored corn nuts, coconut water and the always-execrable mayonnaise.

Worse is the understanding that by not buying them, I am perpetuating their availability. Must this be so difficult? So horribly and sickeningly twisted?

I remind myself this is about unavailable tomatoes—not a lifetime of grocery store angst. I need to focus. I fight-off memories of Home Run Inn's Plum Tomato pizza and contact Mighty Vine, determined that these won't slip through my fingers also.

The good news is that they haven't ceased production. They are merely rebooting and should be back in my favorite chain grocery store shortly.

My jaundiced skepticism of business-speak and public relations propaganda magically falls away as I begin to understand that these juicy red orbs will again re-enter my life.

Such is the power of the liberated tomato.

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