Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato

My tomato seedlings are dying on the windowsill. In my absence, my husband put them outside on sunny, too hot days. It was more than their delicate leaves could take and the tips started to brown and wilt before I could return to rescue them. Maybe this is what made my reading of Arthur Allen's Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, so bittersweet.

"This book is a voyage of discovery that will take you from Mexico to California to Florida and from China to Italy to my backyard," Allen writes. "We'll explore where tomatoes came from, how they became important to our cuisines, the techniques that scientists and gardeners have used to improve them, and finally, why they tend to taste so bad in the wintertime. At the end of our journey, you may feel no less indignant and standoffish about your Safeway tomatoes, but at least you'll have some compassion for the poor guy who produced them. Books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma have delivered strong arguments about what's wrong with our agricultural systems and foodways, and while I concur with some of their points, I feel it's important to separate aesthetic judgments from issues of justice, health, and the environment. There's not much evidence that organic food is healthier for those who eat it. Big farms may upset our sense of the agrarian idyll, but they also produce food cheaply – and reflect generations-old migration of people from their farms. Pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers may be harmful in large doses, but so are some of the powders and sprays used by organic farmers. Cheap food stimulates obesity, it is true – but does that mean expensive food is preferable? Most importantly, it's silly to think we can return to some prelapsarian time in food production. In the words of historian James E. McWilliams, 'writers who believe that achieving truly responsible food production requires rediscovering some long-lost harmonious environmental relationship are agricultural idealists who do not know their history.'"

Call it foodie-fatigue, but I was looking forward to reading this argument. I was hungry for another viewpoint: one that would reveal why my obsession with local, seasonal foods might not be entirely what's best for the worker, the environment, my health, and the economy. I wanted to be re-assured that the direction that big farms and big business are leading us doesn't have to be one of obesity, environmental degradation, and unsatisfying food experiences. It's a lot to place on the shoulders of one small vegetable. (Or is it a fruit?)

And so it was with rapt attention that I read Allen's early chapters as he led me through the tomato's humble beginnings in Mexico, its refinement in California, and its integral role in immigrant labor movements in Florida. As my own hybrids sprouted in their trays in my kitchen (this was back when they were still doing well), I read how heirlooms, while tasty and trendy, represent genetically weaker lines. I remembered how my heirlooms of last summer grew lush, fell off the vine, and rotted faster than I could harvest them while my hybrid grape tomatoes ripened and clung to the vine like little jewels long enough that I could pluck their candy-like sweetness for days. Even though purists might frown upon the hybrid, Allen explained how selective breeding has created a better (tastier, stronger, more beautiful) tomato. I did, in fact, sympathize with both the big farm and the lowly tomato pickers as Allen introduced them to me. Allen also revealed the fascinating history of how the tomato became domesticated and how the breeding of the tomato developed alongside industry developments. He shows how McDonald's and Heinz have driven the move towards those flavorless, mealy globes called "supermarket tomatoes."

But I wasn't entirely sold on Allen's shunning the heirloom. (He seems to hold a particular annoyance for upper-middle-class lefties who demand great taste year-round and their love for the "rebellious" heirloom.) He missed the fact that preserving heirlooms also preserves genetic diversity. Sure, they might be trendy and over-priced now, but they might hold genetic traits that ten years from now might be required to survive an unforeseen blight. Allen showed both sides of the story in the labor difficulties for tomato growers, but these revelations about the conflicts (that even the big farmer is caught between a rock and a hard place) didn't make the status quo, in which the farm-hand ultimately loses out, any more attractive.

It was as he took us to Italy and China that Allen started to lose my interest. While the Chinese army's take over of the tomato canning industry (in a country where tomatoes are barely a part of the cuisine no less) was enlightening, there were times when Ripe read like his (very thorough) research notes or (incredibly detailed) outline. I craved more of his thoughts and his experiences. I wanted to know more about his jaunt across Italy with his family, not just the quotes from the farmers and vendors he met. More importantly, I wanted to know what he was after and whether he ever found it.  Sure, as the subtitle states he's on "The Search for the Perfect Tomato," but this supposed search feels more like a gimmick used to lure readers in to what is really just a history of a fruit. (Or is it a vegetable?)

His argument (if there is one) never seemed to materialize. I had to come up with my own. What Allen, Darwin-like, seems to be getting at is that there is no perfect tomato; that as the environmental (economic, social, and cultural) context changes, the idea of "perfection" changes. And, ironically, as we become more able to manipulate the lowly tomato, the less satisfied we are with our product. With great power, it seems, comes great boredom.

But maybe that's just the malaise of my dying tomato plants talking.

Rhena Tantisunthorn, a native of Washington, DC, grew up knocking back Shirley Temples and cultivating a love of food at the bar rail of her parents' restaurant. She's eaten her way through much of Southeast Asia when she lived in Thailand for three years. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in South Minneapolis where she writes, edits, creates, and lives to blog about it. Her last post for Simple Good and Tasty was Foraging for Food Is a Way of Life for the Hmong.