Building a Better Tomato

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Building a Better Tomato The Quest to Perfect "The Scandalous Fruit"
Klinkenberg, Jeff
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University Press of Florida
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In the search for a superior alternative to bland and mealy grocery-store tomatoes, horticultural scientist Harry Klee and renowned taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk teamed up and are hot on the trail of a specimen that will have you thinking you just picked it in your own back yard.

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GATORBYTES BUILDING A BETTER TOMATO The Quest to Perfect The Scandalous FruitJeff Klinkenberg


1 I eat fresh-picked tomatoes like applesexcept I sprinkle them with salt and pepper and let the juices run down my chin. It was how I was raised. I learned from my adopted grandpar ents, Peggy and Walter Turnham, who lived behind us in Miami when I was a little boy back when Ike was president. Mister W alters thumbs were as green as the broccoli in his garden, but his forte was tomatoes. Hed grown up on an Ala bama farm and the need to grow his own food remained in his vanquished hungry hornworms, then babied his tender tomatoes like they were his kin, which in a way they were. Here, honey, Miss Peggy would say as she handed over the bulging paper bag. Take these maters home to your Mama. Scamper ing over the fence, I bolted through our own kitchen door and gobbled a tomato over the sink like Id seen Mister Walter do. I dont know if they were the best tomatoes ever grown, but in my memoryand memory plays a part in tastethey had to have been. Nearly six decades have passed and I still compare any tomato I eat to Mister Walters. Im almost always disappointed. Because I live in a big city now and lack the space to grow my own, I rely on the supermar an expensive heirloom perhaps, or one of those greenhouse


bambinos from Mexico or Canada, but like most Americans Ill often grab what looks great. Modern American tomatoes, grown at factory American farms, usually look uniformly excel lent. But theyre often baseball hard and as savory as tomato is trying to make the world a better place for tomato eaters. He knows hell never make a supermarket tomato as delicious as one grown with love in a garden, but he is sure he can impened to be one of the worlds foremost experts on taste. She was recruiting an army of diverse tasters to test whatever the As a fanatic who loves his marinara and dreams of BLTs, I going on.The Tomato Guy hed wear a white coat and have an assistant named Ygor. But somewhat disappointing. The only monster that interests him is a better tomato. Born in 1952, he is old enough to r emember when tomatoes tasted like they were supposed to. I sometimes wonder if theres a whole generation of people who have never eaten a de cent commercial tomato, he says. Sometimes, on an airplane, hell strike up a conversation with a gray-haired stranger about his favorite topic. If he explains hes a molecular biologist he might receive a grunt in reply. If he talks about creating a tastier


Building a Better Tomato 3tomato his seatmate might start drooling. Those of us of a cer tain age, serious about our tomatoes, understand completely. at the University of Massachusetts he studied psychology. In terning at a psychiatric hospital, he wondered if mental illness had as much to do with chemistry as emotional trauma. So he changed focus. In graduate school, he got his doctorate in bio chemistry, did postdoctoral work at the University of Washing ton, toiled in horticulture for Monsanto, and moved to Gaines ville in 1995. He served a stint as the director of the universitys plant molecular and cellular biology program, but hell answer to Tomato Guy or Harry. Hes considered a world expert on tomato chemistry. For the record he holds the Dickman Chair for Tomato Im provement. The late Paul Dickman founded Ruskin, Floridas still grows tomatoes at his U-Pick farm. Dickman told me re cently he cares passionately about taste, which is why he helps he said. So how did tomatoes, especially mass-market tomatoes, lose were a local seasonal crop wherever they were grown. In Harry ripened the old-fashioned way, on the vine. Floridians ate them in late fall or early spring. After tomato season we ate water melon or strawberries. Tomatoes were temperamental fellows, prone to splitting and bruising, susceptible to cold and drought, heat and humid they tended to be out-of-this-world delicious. Companies that industrial tomato, one hardy enough to survive shipping,


viruses, and insects. An industrial tomato would grow uni formly large and round. It would ripen, not a little at a time, but relatively quickly and evenly. An industrial tomato plant cannonballs. kind of Frankenmato. The new boy was big, hard, and round. Picked green, it could be reddened by exposure to ethylene gas and not rot for weeks. A Frankenmato could survive rough han dling and bumpy shipping on roads and rails from Atlantic to winter tomato capital of North America. Taste? Who cared about taste? The Fruits of Retronasal Olfaction dens, and greenhouses around the world. Each variety is a compromise of strengths and weaknesses. Some are tasty but delicate. Some are insect resistant but dont tolerate heat. Some require less water than average, some more. Some are large and tasty tomato that is also hardy, large, bug resistant, and will survive a long time on the shelf. The problem: No such tomato apparently exists. ent varieties, not once but hundreds of times, year after year then he analyzes those tomatoes again and again, with a spechallenging work involves taste buds, aromatic volatiles, and


Building a Better Tomato 5how something calledtake a deep breathretronasal olfac tion helps you taste a tomato. And its not just him. A veritable crop of scientists has been trying to make a tastier industrial tomato now for years, and for years industrial tomato growers have looked at the new tomato, tasted the new tomato, dribbled the new tomato, and said: Nope. This doesnt work for us. About a decade ago he developed, through cross-breeding, a tomato he called the Tasti-Lee. It ripened on the vine to a sat isfying red, thwarted insects, and tasted better than any massmarket tomato. Alas, industrial growers turned it downthey was picked up by retailers that include Publix and Costco. Its thing not only yummier but acceptableacceptable is the key wordto industrial growers who want big and hard. Tomato breeding is a competitive enterprise with a cash jack pot as the possible prize. An acceptable mass-market tomato might be worth millions to the winning university and some thing substantial to the scientist who develops it. Even better, as be eaten more frequently than a bland industrial tomato. In a nation populated by couch potatoes, anything that might make us healthier is a welcome bonus. rys desk I counted three jars of tomato sauce and several toma toes he said tasted good but were too small and misshapen to be acceptable to industrial farmers. Behind him, hundreds of books about tomatoes and cellular biology threatened to tumble from the groaning shelves onto his head. I just came back fr om Japan, he told me. I was totally


surprised by consumers there. They dont care about costthey want a tasty tomato. And of course, thats how it is in Italy, France, Spain. You can buy a delicious tomato in any market be cause theyre grown locally and ripened on the vine. In Amer demanding. Mexico and Canada and small farmers who specialize in heir The tomato industry hates for me to say this but consumers are beginning to walk away from Florida-produced tomatoes, surviving basically because the fast-food industry just wants burger.Ancient Roots, Modern ComplexitiesTomatoes, thy name is disappointment. good supermarket tomato, I tried growing my own in a back yard garden. My organics, like a colicky infant, kept me hop ping. Just when I thought they were going to be okay theyd awaken to the fact that it was hot and humid in Florida, or too cold and dry, and display their displeasure with leaf curl, mil dew, dark spots, and alarming white streaks. Id beg, cajole, sing opera to them, and for a day or so theyd be kind. Then, in the middle of the night, ninja caterpillars somehow would parachute into the garden and eat tomato leaves down to the nubs. Still, a few brave plants lived long enough to gift me with something edible. In the kitchen I devoured them over the sink,


Building a Better Tomato 7juice dripping, and remembered Mister Walter, mostly with kindness. Today I live in Pinellas, a densely populated county in west central Florida where commercial agriculture long ago and recently started a business, Urban Microfarms, to help rookie gardeners. Another friend, Lyn Van Voorst, a retired ele mentary school guidance counselor, planted a garden on her St. Petersburg property out of tomato desperation. Soon, envious neighbors were stopping by to admire the bounty. Now some of those same neighbors lease garden plots in her spacious yard. Everybody wants a delicious tomato, she told me. used in his study sag with all manner of heirlooms and com mercial tomatoes. An hour from campus, he maintains a small farm for growing the cross breeds employed in experiments and occasionally for his kitchen. To tell the truth, he told me, Im sick of eating raw tomatoes because Ive eaten so many in my work. But I do like to make a fresh marinara sauce. Tomatoes originated not in Italy but in South America. Wild plants with tiny fruits, they grew in a desert near the Andes. the time Hernando Corts conquered Mexico City in 1521 the Aztecs were eating tomatoes. Nobody knows who carried the Andrea, mentioned them in a paper in 1544. Golden apples, he called them. He considered tomatoes decorative rather than something to eat. A marinara recipe showed up in a Neapolitan cookbook in


thought tomatoes, members of the deadly nightshade family, Alexander Livingston, began growing tomatoes on a commer Everything about tomatoes seems needlessly complicated. For example, a tomato botanically is a fruit but is usually treated as a vegetable. In 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court made it to be taxed. In America, the tomato even has its Mecca. The holy temple is found in Davis, California, at the Charles M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center. Its the repository for tomato seeds and tomato lore from all over the world. Rick, who died in seed from what he thought were relatives of prehistoric tomato plants. Rick comes up in conversation whenever tomato scientists gather. Born in 1915, passionate and generous, he was a true ec centric. He hated the aroma of cigarettes but liked traveling in that suave, sophisticated smokers told more interesting stories than milquetoast nonsmokers. He rode a bicycle on campus and seldom wore a shirt. The grizzled scientist once was seen on his knees pawing through a pile of tortoise feces in hopes of collect ing an undiscovered tomato seed. Rick provided rare seeds and tomato DNA to scientists all Center, planted some in his UF greenhouse. Stone-age tomatoes said. snob, he grinds the beans, would never think about drinking


Building a Better Tomato 9from a paper cup. Sometimes he walks outside after breakfast and chases the deer away from his plants. Sometimes he drinks his espresso while reading a snatch of history, perhaps Doris The Science of Cooking. To me, cooking is like science. You may have a formula but you still have to adapt because things dont go according to the plan. Perhaps tonight he will cook something sauce. Cooking up a better-tasting tomato doesnt sound like it should be rocket science. But consider this: We put a man on taste better. What ar e the most important chemicals that go into what For that matter, what constitutes a good-tasting tomato? What is its chemistry? Sweet, sour, bitter, salty? You taste those with your tongue. Then there are what we call volatiles or aromatic units. They are what create that explosive taste when you bite into a tomato. You might smell the volatiles through your nose. As you chew your food the aromatic volatiles enter your nasal called retronasal olfaction. At noon, he eats a sandwich at his desk, or goes out for Thai. his work the rest of the day.


matoes, some going back to the nineteenth century. He peruses old seed catalogs for tomatoes that sound interesting and goes hunting. He acquires seed from seed banks, farmers, and home gardeners. In the spring and fall he grows tomatoes. He tastes them, he may breed it with something that has the advantage of being larger or hardier. He may breed the result with something else. Victor Frankenstein had it easier. The Queen of Taste sor, was running the tomato show. She looked exhausted. She kneeling in the rain while picking the latest tomato crop at the plant got their own plastic bag, and each plastic bag received an by computer. the task of every lab assistantwas to start chopping tomatoes, dream about them when I sleep, research assistant Dawn Bies said.


Building a Better Tomato 11 She carried a container of chopped tomatoes to senior biolo gist Mark Taylor. His taskcramming tomato chunks into Luke Skywalkers Star Wars Light Saber. At least thats what it looked like to me. Taylor called the long glass tube a volatile collection apparatus. lor carried it to Tiemen. Her task: screwing the tube into a ma chine which sucked the volatiles out of the tomato and turned them from liquid to gas. Another machine analyzed the data. A printer sputtered life and spewed out a long graph. Tieman held a vial under my nose. cine odor. Cis-3-hexenal reminded me of fresh-cut grass. Put them together and they said, Youre eating a tomato. Its complicat ed, Tieman told me. You should speak to Linda. So I did. Linda Bartoshuk is a psychologist, accor ding to her resum. But those who know her best consider her the queen of taste. She grew up a science-crazy kid in a small South Dakota town. Among her early memories is stargazing in the backyard. physics and trigonometry, she was advised to take typing and bookkeeping because of her gender. At Carleton College in Min nesota she majored in astronomy. Two years into her studies she She changed majors and came to love the study of taste, gradu ating with a psychology degree. At Brown, she went on to ob tain a masters and doctorate. She had long hair and wor e granny glasses. She was a nerd. She couldnt dance, wasnt interested in dancing, liked to talk about science, and married a physicist. In 1971 she began her


career at Yale. She remembers the lab director who noticed her pregnancy and dropped by to say farewell. She explained she had no intention of quitting, that shed return to work after giv ing birth. A half century later she can still quote him: Women like you are going to destroy western civilization. years. Among her achievements was proving that post-menowere not imagining their pain, as insensitive physicians some times had suggested, but dealing with something physical. worlds attention again. Supertasters, she believed, were people who live in a neon taste world. They might be Paris chefs, a grumpy homemaker next door, or even a pimply-faced college student who subsisted on French fries at McDonalds. But how to prove her theory? She tested them. She asked participants to touch their tongue to a paper containing propylthiouracil, a bitter chemical. Some, including Bartoshuk, could chew the paper and taste nothing ter taste but found it tolerable. A minority of tasters found the acidy paper sickening. Something physical was at play. small square of paper and asked me to touch it with my tongue. Instantly my eyes watered. The taste was so bitter I thought I might throw up. Bartoshuk looked pleased. You might be a supertaster, she said with delight. She led me into another room, where I sat nervously in a den tal chair. Her assistant swabbed my tongue with blue dye. I held a glass slide against my blue tongue. As I lay still, a microscope swooped down and began snapping photographs. Look at all those fungiform papillae! Bartoshuk declar ed. Fungiform papillae contain neurons sensitive to touch and to


Building a Better Tomato 13 I had a lot of taste buds. In the United States, only about 15 percent of us are so blessed, or cursed, Bartoshuk explained. Women are most likely to be supertasters, an evolutionary advantage. Thousands of years ago a supertaster pregnant woman, or a breastfeeding super taster mother, would detect poison while eating a plant much not all bitter plants are poisonous, which meant supertasters ate from a smaller, less healthy menu. Someone who avoids eating nutritious vegetables, in fact, might be more likely to develop cancer. Soon after Bartoshuk joined the University of Florida faculty pus. She needed supertasters as well as others to sample Harry are passionate and articulate. When the New York Times needs a quote from a certain kind of expert its their phones that ring. Their achievements have been recognized with membership in the National Academy of Sciences, among the professions highest honors. eats adventurously, Bartoshuks food allergies limit her diet. She regards leftover mashed potatoes with Spam a perfect dinner. For breakfast, give her a gluten-free bagel smeared with low-sodium liverwurst. she asked in a loud voice. That would suck.


Six volatiles, found in various tomatoes, enhance sweetness, it turned out. Because supertasters prefer sweetness, Bartoshuk also breed a tomato for folks who like their tomatoes more sour.Toward a Better Industrial TomatoWhenever I visit the Everglades, I have to drive past an indus trial tomato packing plant that stretches for blocks in Home dreds march down neat rows with sacks. DiMare Fresh is among North Americas largest tomato companies, with 18 have ever bought a large, sturdy, and somewhat reddish tomato from the supermarket, or asked for a tomato on your patty at The company began in 1928 in Boston, wher e teenage broth ers Anthony, Dominic, and Joseph sold tomatoes from a push cart. They worked so hard and saved so much that a banker DiMare, who inherited the business from his father, Anthony, is 73. A member of Floridas Agriculture Hall of Fame, hes known as Mr. Tomato. industry. They include government regulations, immigration reform, climate change, bad soil, voracious insects, viruses, hur


Building a Better Tomato 15competition from foreign countries. He didnt mention tomato taste until I did. If somebody comes up with a big, commercial tomato that ships well and tastes good, he said hed be inter ested. But its going to be hard to do that, he said. Tomatoes are complicated. Anyway, he said, he didnt think the taste of industrial tomatoes was a big problem. If consumers learn to resist cooling their tomatoes in the refrigeratorcold destroys the tomato volatilestheyll enjoy a better product, he said. Before we hung up he suggested I talk to his son, Anthony, who manages DiMare Freshs other huge operation. Its in lot where rumbling trucks laden with green tomatoes were lined up outside of what seemed like a factory. Inside, as we talked, Anthony glanced over my head at a television tuned to the Weather Channel. Nature never sleeps, he said. pounds per loadat a time. In late fall and early spring some times the plant is processing 9.4 million pounds of tomatoes on any given day. Anthony showed me around. In the airport terminalsized warehouse, he had to shout to be heard over the roar of trucks dumping tomatoes into vats that washed away chemicals and debris. From the vats tomatoes tumbled along belts lined by workers in gowns and hairnets who separated tomatoes ac toes into bins. Rejects, DiMar e yelled. The conveyer belts deposited acceptable tomatoes into erators who carried boxes into ripening rooms that smelled of ethylene gas.


The tomatoes were green, but theyre actually ripe, DiMare told me. The gas would turn the tomatoes a pale red. Then they would be reloaded onto trucks and shipped to supermarkets and fast-food chains across the country. Im a bold guy I wondered if I might have a few tomatoes to take home for supper. Anthony pointed me to a box of r ejects. Theyd been rejected because they had ripened on the vine. In other words, they were ready to eat now. I carried my small box of tomato rejects into the parking lot and set it on the tailgate of my truck. In the dark I found my shaker, dribbled salt onto the ripe tomato, and took an im turehmm, a little hardand perceived the salt and a little explosion of volatiles into my nasal cavity. Thanks to my new musky, earthy. Mister Walter, who might have found it bland, and it wouldnt thought it was okay. At least it was juicy and would make a decent marinara. How long befor e you develop a better industrial tomato? I asked. Soon, he said. Its going to happen during your lifetime. I plan to live long enough to taste it.


Building a Better Tomato 17Further ReadingTomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Al luring Fruit by Barry Estabrook. Ripe: The Search For the Perfect Tomato by Arthur Allen.


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