I knew it was going to be a mistake before I ate it. But it was a very appealing-looking slice of tomato on the plate at the restaurant - perfect shape, nice attractive red color. It looked much like those beautiful photos in glossy seed catalogs. So I cut the slice into fourths and popped a wedge into my mouth, hoping that my expectations would be wrong this time.
Wrong! While chewing, my taste buds vainly tried to coax something like a tomato flavor from the oddly neutral material. No luck. I sighed and left the remaining pieces uneaten. In hindsight, I should have known that it was really intended more to provide a little color to the plate than to be consumed.
Yes, I know. Everybody and their crazy uncle have ranted on and on about tasteless tomatoes. We all agree - those pretty, uniformly-sized red things at the supermarket are "like cardboard." There's no need to further belabor that point.
Instead, let's consider the opportunity that this creates. There are varieties and growing methods readily available that can produce marvelous tasting vegetables, not only tomatoes but beans, melons, asparagus, corn and all the others. And the flavor difference in the same potato or sweet corn eaten within hours of being harvested versus several days later is huge.
Sadly, many people never get a chance to savor freshly-picked flavor-packed varieties of vegetables. The growing popularity of farmer's markets is a step in the right direction, but even there the rows and rows of identical "pretty" vegetables are a tip-off that vendors are selling inferior-flavored produce bred more for high production than for high flavor.
At a recent local farmer's market, I did spot some ugly heirloom tomatoes in a back box. There were various colors - near-black, yellow, red-streaked gold, as well as red. Many were cat-faced and none were perfectly round. I was loading a bag with some of each when I noticed the price - $5.99 per pound. The big red and yellow tomato (maybe Hillbilly, Georgia Streak, or Pineapple?) in my hand would cost me over seven dollars all by itself. Whoa!
But I still bought it. And thoroughly enjoyed eating it at home later, one delicious slice at a time. I managed to stretch the experience out over a few days.
I think there's a lesson and an opportunity in this story. Some people care enough about flavor in their food to pay a premium price for great-tasting stuff...and there's not enough great stuff readily available. If I were younger, I'd seriously consider finding a few acres within range of a city, load up the soil with minerals, create big populations of beneficial soil organisms - earthworms down to nitrogen-fixing bacteria - and plant only high-flavored varieties of vegetables.
In California, the commercial strawberry variety Chandler is widely touted as having excellent flavor - a little strawberry taste has been bred into them. A neighbor once told me how he was now looking for Chandlers in markets (and outside of apples, not much produce is identified by variety - a bad thing). I took him back to my garden and offered him an Earliglow berry. I think I forever ruined Chandlers for him.
There are heirloom tomatoes as well as older hybrids that taste wonderful and produce enormous crops of (misshapen) fruit - Mortgage Lifter, Big Girl, Beefsteak, Pink Girl, Lemon Boy, Clear Pink Early, Grushovka, to name a few. There are varieties of SE sweet corn (Incredible is a good one) that taste far superior to the insipid Supersweets now dominating produce stands. Beans, strawberries, melons - even carrots (Nelson, for example) - can all produce an "Oh,wow!" response when grown in good soil and eaten soon after picking.
That's both the problem and the opportunity - growing top-flavor fragile varieties in mineral-rich living soil, and then getting them quickly into the hands of consumers after picking is not easy, but there can be rewards for success.
This isn't exactly an innovative idea, but I just don't see many growers making the most effective improvements of their soil, or growing the highest-flavored varieties, or promoting "unattractive" but highly-flavored produce at farmer's markets. Yes, a few are doing some of these things, but the entire process could be done so much better (and more profitably at the same time).
Look good or taste good? It's a shame that we typically have to make that choice. Growing your own is the ultimate answer - and don't overlook the importance of activated soil and tastier varieties. "New and improved" rarely works for vegetables.
Good growing, my friends,