Rich Tomato, Poor Tomato

Left, Striped German. Right, Hybrid Round Red.Photo: Kang Kim

Striped German
Stokes Farm, New Jersey
$4.50 a pound at various Greenmarket locations

This specimen, raised at the Binaghi family farm some 28 miles from Union Square, is a highly seasonal fruit, bred for a niche market of devotees who demand undiluted tomatoness. It tastes full and sweet, with a peachy texture, and looks ghastly.

There is virtually no limit to how much a New Yorker will pay for a “hot” tomato. At the height of the season, Dean & DeLuca charges $6 a pound for mixed heirlooms; Balducci’s prices go up to $7. Stokes Farm’s $4.50 tag, by no means extravagant, occasionally elicits sticker shock, mostly when a weigh-in of a massive two-pounder reveals that the customer is about to pay $9 for one tomato.

The Striped German’s life is short and uncomplicated. It begins in New Jersey’s Bergen County in mid-April, when the Binaghis plant its seed in their greenhouse. In mid-May, they transfer the eight-inch plant from the greenhouse to the field, where it sits, undisturbed, until the fruit is fully ripe. Some time between August and mid-October, one of the Binaghis will pick the Striped German and pack it into a box for a truck ride into Manhattan, where it will wind up on a Greenmarket stand or on the menu of a restaurant like the Upper West Side’s Telepan.

By definition, an heirloom comes from a pure strain of seed that was never crossbred with any other variety. As students of Europe’s great monarchies know very well, two side effects of purity are homeliness and frailty. The fruit bruises so easily that a third of the crop may get lost on the way to the Greenmarket. Once there, the tomatoes’ bottoms often turn to pulp from the shoppers’ simply hefting them and setting them back down. Even the intact Striped German’s life span is short: After two or three days, its skin will sag and the flesh will turn gelatinous. Refrigeration, of course, is anathema. It kills the taste.

Hybrid Round Red
Pacific Tomato Growers, Florida
99 cents a pound at Key Food, others

A product of multimillion-dollar research and development, this tomato was bred on a 17,000-acre Pacific Tomato Growers megafarm in Florida and can be found nationwide, year-round, packaged in cellophane in any mid-level supermarket chain, diced in a Taco Bell taco, or somewhat pointlessly decorating a hamburger. Bred for appearance and consistency, this specimen looks like the Platonic ideal of a tomato (the strict standards of the Florida Tomato Committee govern its appearance), but tastes as though its flavor has been leached out and stored somewhere else.

Red’s growth was tightly controlled every step of the way; elements had little opportunity to leave an imprint on it. The seed has been crossbred with other varieties to stave off an array of tomato ailments with names like Fusarium wilt, gray leaf spot, and Alternaria stem canker. The grower adjusts the soil’s pH, adds nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and fumigates the plant with pesticide to ward off various insect nemeses.

To simplify packing, the tomato is plucked from the vine before it’s ripe, at a stage called “mature green”—fully grown but with the texture closer to an apple—and emptied into a vast “gondola” for washing and sorting. From there, the tomato heads by truck to a packing plant, where it receives a disinfecting chlorinated bath, a cooldown (a mature green tomato can chill for two weeks at 58 degrees Fahrenheit without any noticeable consequences), and a stay in the ripening room, a chamber filled with ethylene, which turns tomatoes the desired sunset shade.

Finally, Red is sorted for size, eyeballed for imperfections, slicked with food-grade vegetable wax (making it glossy and impervious to the bumpy ride ahead), and piled into a 25-pound ventilated carton. After a two-day, 1,250-mile journey, it arrives at a New York supermarket, where it can sit for a week without any change in texture or taste, such as it is.

Rich Tomato, Poor Tomato