The Totalitarian Tomato

I exhausted my summer serving Rueben sandwiches to bored, sweaty lawyers at a stuffy golf club upstate. It was not uncommon to be called by my first name or “dear,” but the informality of our turquoise polos was interrupted every Wednesday night when we donned our tuxedo shirts and black bow-ties for our infamous “Wednesday Night Dinner” service, which incorporated all of the nuances of a five-star restaurant like serving ladies first and clearing plates only when the entire table has finished eating.
It was here that I encountered my first heirloom tomatoes, resting in crates tucked away in a corner of the walk-in fridge. Our head chef featured them on our formal dinner nights as colorful accents to plates of soft shell crab and japonica rice. These “ugly-ripe” vegetables (or fruits for you purists out there) looked more like grocery store rejects than the haute-couture status suggested by their name. Their size varied from baseball to dollar coin, their color from autumnal orange, grass green, to purple plum, and their shape too inconsistent for an adequate comparison. Even the names of heirloom varieties such as Banana Legs, Tiny Tim, Mortgage Litter, and Spoon, suggest a contrary, however more appropriate comical nom de plume. But the heirloom element materializes in their decadent tomato taste.
Scientific American online recently featured an in-depth report titled “The Science of Our Food.” The report ran from March 30 to April 6 with six features uploaded daily.
The first installment, “How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case Against Heirloom Tomatoes,” attacks the mystery behind the farmers-market-junkie’s coveted heirloom tomatoes. In the tradition of the humdrum scientific method, the authors break the heirlooms down to their genetic structure to prove that these precious poppets are not much different from the uniform tomato army that graces our grocery store shelves.
The authors title a sub section of the article “Weak and Wimpy,” attacking the heirloom’s low disease immunity. They invoke the work of scientists who point to the supposedly low productivity of the heirloom plant as the source of its delicious flavor. These scientists, it seems, are more concerned with creating a Franken-tomato than preserving fruit diversity. The authors refer to the heirloom’s favored oddities as “neither quirky nor cute, just an accident of a single-pronged breeding strategy left over from the dawn of genetics.” Why the dismissive attitude toward the rouge fruit?
Seminis Vegetable Seeds, a subsidiary of Monsanto, is producing a bionic seed that will combat the “defective flowers” of the original seed. Rather than a few flowers per plant, Seminis seeds will produce up to thirty through gentically modified hybridization. But consider Monsanto’s underlying agenda –
Monsanto is ready to create an agriculture monopoly. The 2004 documentary The Future of Food demonstrates the inevitable Armageddon of small scale, family farms. Because Monsanto patents the seeds it manufactures, Monsanto has the power to sue farmers for “stealing” the Monsanto seeds when the seeds naturally cross-pollinate into surrounding farms. Farmers essentially have no power over these forces of nature, especially because there is no visible difference between non-genetically modified crops and Monsanto crops.
With Seminis in the laboratory sampling, slicing, and shifting the heirloom’s genes, the “ugly-ripes” are headed to a similar state of the plastic-surgery-induced, Dolly-Parton-like immortal “perfection.” Say so long to Banana Legs.

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One Comment on “The Totalitarian Tomato”

  1. hornblower says:

    Schmidt and Steve and I were just discussing the fruit-or-vegetable tomato question today! Apparently, “vegetable” is merely a culinary distinction and has no botanical meaning, so although the tomato is technically (botanically speaking) a fruit, it’s also a functioning vegetable. Even the Supreme Court has weighed in on the subject — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nix_v._Hedden


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