Photo Credit: nowviskie via flickr and Creative Commons license.
by A.K. Streeter, Portland, Oregon
The moment has arrived. The tomatoes are ripe, and so the question is not "What's For Dinner?" but "What Are We Having With The Tomato Salad Tonight?" Maybe we'll get sick of tomatoes drizzled with good oil, balsamic vinegar, and shake of salt and pepper, but it hasn't happened yet. Since we eat so many tomatoes, there's quite a lot of tomato talk, and the current questions on our minds are, why are heirloom tomatoes called that, and why do they taste so good? LA's Farmscape garden-planting service takes an attempt at an answer.
Farmscape has the enviable mission of bring Victory gardening firmly back in to the mainstream. A staple of WWII households, Victory gardens were basic backyard fruit and vegetable gardens that supplemented families' food and reduced their dependency on mass-produced agriculture during war time. Amazingly, according to Farmscape, during that time 20 million backyard gardeners grew 40 percent of the nation's food.
To demonstrate how good-tasting backyard garden produce can be, last week Farmscape ran its own test of tomatoes. Using a refractometer, Farmscape tested tomatoes' Brix score, a measurement of the sugar content of fruits and vegetables. (Brix is used in commercial fruit juice, wine making and other industries to compare sugar contents between batches.)
Farmscape chose nine tomato varieties that were grown in organic Farmscape "home" garden plots and another nine heirloom tomatoes from LA-area farmers' markets and local grocery stores.
"Gardening in your own backyard produces just as good or better quality fruits and vegetables than what you may buy in the store." - Farmscape CEO Jesse DuBois.
The tomatoes grown in Farmscape plots at homes in the LA area scored between 5.0 and 9.0 on the Brix scale. Farmers' market tomatoes scored a 4.3 on average, while local grocery store tomatoes scored 4.0. None of the purchased tomatoes, Farmscape said, scored above 5.0.
The higher Brix score (and sugar content) of the home-grown tomatoes is one reason why they taste so good. Some, though not all, sources also say that higher Brix scores mean better quality, as a high Brix score indicates higher mineral density in a plant than a lower Brix score.
The other part of the terrific-tasting backyard tomatoes is their varieties, and well, their perishable nature. An heirloom tomato is any of the many thousands of different types of tomatoes that is open pollinated - i.e. not a hybrid. Because there are so many, many varieties (and many of these non-hybrids lack disease resistance bred into hybrids) they are all lumped together under the marketing term "heirloom."
Heirlooms are good precisely because they haven't been standardized and aren't a part of the $5 billion annual tomato market. According to author Barry Estabrook, tomato fields are sprayed with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides, and the fruit is picked unripe and then coaxed to redness with gas.
Modern plant breeding has tripled yields, according to Estabrook's book Tomatoland, but produces fruits with a fraction of the calcium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C, and has fourteen tiimes as much sodium as the tomatoes of decades ago.
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