Where Freshness Is Always In Season?

It’s finally tomato season where I live so I’m dreaming in big red circles. (Green and yellow ones, too.) This past weekend I bought a 40 lb flat and made enough peak season, homemade sauces and condiments to remind me this winter of summer treats. I had a long conversation with a tomato supplier in San Antonio, TX last week about his farming practices, and this week I’m meeting with a tomato farmer in Ventura, CA. I’m also looking at what’s being sold in markets and I’m truly amazed.

One upscale market I visited recently had four general varieties on hand, all within a similar price range: heirloom (grown within 50 miles), local organic (less than 10), roma (50), and hydroponic cluster tomatoes. I pulled the sticker off one cluster tomato and under a microscope I could see the phrases "greenhouse grown" and "product of Canada." A quick check of maps showed a distance of nearly 1,000 miles by truck between Santa Rosa, CA and Vancouver, BC. For greenhouse-grown produce, the most significant carbon emissions factor is the fossil fuel used to grow the product rather than the distance, in most cases.

But why would a market even carry a tomato from so far away when they can get gorgeous, price-competitive varieties from fields less than an hour away? And why would consumers choose this produce over the other varieties?

The tomato producer’s website might offer a clue. Tailored to corporate purchasers, it touts the company’s benefits: a "low cost producer," a "daily supplier to customers" and a "provider of excellence in customer service and logistics." In other words, if you’re a produce manager, this company can make sure you’ve got cosmetically attractive tomatoes on your shelves every day of the year. Woe to you if they are ever missing.

If you’re a consumer (and not as nosy as I am), what’s to clue you in to the differences among four equally-priced, attractive and seemingly "equal" choices? Answer: Nothing. Chances are, you got used to buying those hothouse tomatoes in February and only a quest for variety would change your buying habits now. It’s likely to be a long time before most consumers view tomatoes as subject to the "seasonal and regional" framework. For those that do, I have some advice: tomato season is that much more special if you wait for it.

-Helene York, director of the Bon App

étit Management Company Foundation