The Depressing Truth About Tomatoes

No wonder the fruit in the supermarket tastes terrible. Even the farmers don’t care about it

Barry Estabrook is right. Supermarket tomatoes really do suck. The author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit has been making the rounds talking up his book about why we should stop eating tomatoes once they’re out of season.

“I think tomatoes in grocery stores are like food porn in the purest sense of the word. They look nice, they tantalize you, they make you think, but they don’t deliver,” Estabrook recently told NPR.

He goes on to explain that farmers (particularly those who sell to supermarkets) don’t get paid for flavor. They get paid by the pound, so as long as a tomato looks good, supermarkets will buy it—and few hundred of it’s equally beautiful, equally flavorless friends—without worrying about whether the fruit is tasty.

Have you ever heard anything more depressing? This is the exact opposite of taking pride in your work. Purposefully growing flavorless tomatoes is the agricultural version of teaching the test in public schools.

So what’s a tomato lover to do?

Instead of demanding tomatoes—or any other seasonal food—year-round, perhaps we should go retro and just enjoy them while they’re actually … good.

I tried to do that this weekend by stuffing my face with locally grown tomatoes. I picked up two big heirlooms at the new-ish Marathon Farm in North Philly on Saturday morning and by dusk, I had sliced ’em, salted ’em and devoured ’em raw. The next morning, I picked up three more—each of them gloriously red and twice the size of my fist—from New Jersey’s A.T. Buzby Farms at Headhouse Square. When I got home an hour later, I immediately scarfed down two of them for lunch and polished off the third one an hour later.

The fruit from these farms taste like love, not like the flavorless, mealy tomatoes you get from ShopRite in December. These farmers clearly care about flavor, about taste, about the experience of eating a freshly picked piece of fruit.

Now, how do we get the rest of the farmers (and the consumers) to feel that way?