When I was a college student at UC Davis a kid named Bill lived down the hall from me in the Pierce Coop dormitory. Bill had grown up near Pleasanton in a gated community with a golf course and his father was a senior executive with the Bank of America. Bill’s privileged upbringing left him enraged at authority and hungering for an authentic life filled with want and struggle. So one day Bill stole a big sack of tomatoes from a field near the campus to make salsa for a party and the farmer caught him. “You’re never going to steal my tomatoes again,” said the farmer.
“Why not?” Bill asked. Bill believed that farmers are rich landowners and should share their crops with The People whether they want to or not. “What are you going to do; kill me?”
“No,” said the farmer. “But the tomatoes don’t taste good.”
Maybe if Bill had been an agriculture student the tasteless tomatoes he’d stolen wouldn’t have been so disappointing. The tomatoes produced around Davis in those years were processing tomatoes; they hadn’t been engineered for eating, or at least not for eating fresh.
Processing tomatoes have been developed to be extremely firm, even when dead ripe, and they’re not very juicy. Compared to many salad tomatoes grown in the garden, which are indeterminate, field tomatoes for processing are determinate. A determinate tomato grows as a low bush and sets all of its fruit at one time, so that the entire crop can be harvested at once by a machine. Processing tomatoes are firm to the point of being rubbery so that they aren’t damaged either during the mechanical harvest or when they’re dumped into the trailer with tons of other tomatoes for the trip to the ketchup factory. It will be in the ketchup factory that the processing tomato’s virtues as a food crop become apparent. The high heat of cooking caramelizes the sugars that are hidden in the processing tomato’s firm flesh so that flavor develops. Because the processing tomato doesn’t have a lot of juice in it there isn’t a lot of excess water to drive off in steam in order to make a paste. The fibers that make the processing tomatoes so hard soften with cooking so they can be pureed into the thick, gloppy texture that makes ketchup so hard to shake out of the bottle. Then too, cooking processing tomatoes deepens their shiny red color to the iconic Heinz red that kids find so satisfying.
Garden tomatoes, by contrast, are juicy, soft, and usually indeterminate; the plants grow tall and must be supported, but they flower over a long season so that the harvest off a single plant may stretch deep into the fall. Garden tomatoes come in many different colors. This year I have grown the following varieties:
1. Early Girl; a high acid, red saladette tomato
2. Beefsteak; a large, red slicing tomato
3. Green Zebras; high acid, greenish, striped yellow saladettes
4. Brandywine; large, heirloom pink, mid-acid, fleshy slicers
5. Striped German; large, heirloom, yellow marbled with red, low acid, fleshy slicer
6. Cherokee Purple; large, heirloom, mid-acid, fleshy slicer
7. Sungolds; tiny, sweet, orange cherries
8. Washington; a small, red cherry tom
9. San Marzano; a red, mid-acid salad/sauce tomato
This Labor Day weekend all varieties are available at our u-pick event, to one degree or other, though we clearly have the most San Marzano, Early Girls, Beefsteaks, Cherries, and Zebras. All our tomato varieties can be made into sauce, but the San Marzano is the traditional Italian sauce tomato. It has less juice than the other kinds and makes a sauce quickly. If you are coming to the u-pick come early. It gets hot in the afternoon. If you can’t come this Saturday but you do want to attend a u-pick, don’t worry. We will schedule some Sunday u-picks (at least one), and even a Thursday u-pick or two. We will also be selling box quantities of tomatoes for wholesale prices to the Ladybug Truck Farm Buying Club who want to can or make sauce but who can’t come to the field. More info on those deliveries: it’s open to all! no waiting lists!
I’m usually exhausted by the end of tomato season, and I’m lucky if I remember to make my own sauce for the winter, but I do look forward to the tomato crop every year. One year, when we were still selling at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and when the Honorable Willie Brown was still mayor of San Francisco, The City hosted a nationwide conference of mayors. I set up my market stall at dawn and stepped back to admire the reds and greens and golds of the tomatoes I’d piled up, and I noticed a crowd gathering at the edge of the parking lot. America’s mayors were being seated for a prayer breakfast across the street on the waterfront and protesters had been drawn out of bed by the presence of so many august dignitaries. Several protesters approached me hoping to buy overripe, organic tomatoes “real cheap” to throw at the mayor. Then, as now, I needed money badly, but I declined these potential sales out of a lingering sense of reverence for the dignity of the democratic process. Besides, there are better things to do with over-ripe tomatoes than waste them on praying politicians; like making water, for example. I learned this trick from the San Francisco chefs I sell produce to.
Even (or especially) luxurious restaurants must practice tight-fisted economies if they wish to stay in business. The best chefs know how get the most out of their food budget. Extra tomatoes, soft tomatoes and tomatoes that are too damaged or cosmetically challenged to be of other use can be used for tomato water. First the ripe tomatoes are chopped, then lightly salted, and finally put into a cheesecloth bag over a pot and left to drain. The clear liquid that is captured has the clean, flavorful, essence of tomato without any distracting catsup “notes” or pizza “tones”. Tomato water can be used to give character to vinaigrettes, sauces, broths, juices and cocktails. Freeze the tomato water into ice cubes and bag them for use in the winter. The pulp that is left behind can be used as the basis for a sauce or broth. Maybe there won’t be so much want and struggle in America when we learn to treat our nation’s resources with the respect and economy that good cooks bring to every meal and when we vote for politicians that share our values.
copyright Andy Griffin 2009
Lots more about our Truck Farm bulk buying club:
Special Deliveries to your Community:
Wed Sept. 2nd San Francisco/Mission 3pm-6pm
Friday Sept. 4th Stanford/Palo Alto 3pm-6pm
Saturday 9/5 San Francisco Piccino 10am -1pm
Saturday 9/5 UPICK in Hollister 9am-1pm all are welcome!
Thursday 9/10 Santa Cruz or Capitola tba 3:30-5:30
List of what’s on offer:
San Marzano Tomatoes (paste type, like large romas) 20#/$28 (5 cases or more single variety $23/20#)
Early Girl tomatoes 20#/$28 (5 cases or more single variety $23/20#)
Heirloom tomatoes 10#/$16
Beefsteak tomatoes 10#/$15
Pimiento de Padron Peppers 1#/$9
Indian Corn for decoration or masa $3/3 pieces. beautiful!!
Red and Gold Bell Peppers for roasting and freezing. nice! no greens. $19/10#
what I do with sweet peppers: remove green stem; char in oven/broiler or over a fire/barbeque. then put in paper sack for a couple minutes. then remove skins, then stuff in modern canning jars that can also be freezer jars. (less plastic that way. but you can use zip locs) voila: roasted peppers for the year.
** do sign up for updates in your community!: to sign up for email alerts for these special deliveries:
Monterey Bay Area
Thanks for the good stories and the tomato water tip–very wise!
I ran into your site and this post when Googling “Pierce Coop”, where I lived from the fall of 1976 through the spring of 1978. I’m not the same Bill you’re referring to but I *was* down the hall from a number of people. 😉
Anyway, it’s a pleasure to read your insightful commentary. Keep up the good work!
P.S. I like beans, too. And salsa.