If the modern industrialized tomato were a celebrity, it would be Tom Cruise, the modern industrialized actor.
The similarities are striking:
The actor and the fruit both look superficially appealing. They both have thin skins, not to mention an artificially long shelf life. And neither is as flavorful, juicy or interesting as its perfect appearance might suggest. Bland and boring as cardboard would be more apt descriptors.
In contrast, the old-fashioned, home-grown heirloom tomato — the kind that you pick warm from the vine on this Fourth of July, slice thin and sprinkle with salt and pepper — might be deemed the Tom Hanks of the gardening world. Like Hanks, its features may be a little more irregular and misshapen, and it comes in a wider palette of red, green and yellow. But in the end, it offers a far more interesting and rewarding flavor.
The difference between them is significant. For example, try to imagine Tom Cruise playing Forrest Gump. The very thought will make your brain cramp, as if you ate too much ice cream too quickly.
That’s all I’m going to say about that.
How then can you account for the ubiquity of Cruise and his tomato counterpart? In both cases, as in too many others, the answer comes down to a genetic weakness for marketing over quality.
According to a study published in the journal Science last week, the blandness of the modern tomato can be traced to the work of botanists roughly 70 years ago. After discovering a genetic mutation that made tomatoes turn a uniform and attractive red, they began to breed that mutation into almost all commercially available strains of tomatoes. At the time, they either didn’t understand or didn’t care that the same mutation that made tomatoes turn uniformly scarlet also made tomatoes less sweet and juicy.
And why was it so important to breed tomatoes to have a uniform red color? Why was that attribute valued so much more highly than actual taste and flavor?
Because human beings, like other primates, are genetically programmed to prefer red fruit. We respond instinctively to the color red because in nature, red tells us that the fruit in question is ripe and rich in natural sugars and other nutrients.
In other words, the modern industrialized tomato has been genetically altered to lie to us. Its bright red color promises our lizard brain a burst of juicy flavor that the fruit itself can no longer deliver. It has been bred into a fraud.
However, according to Ann Powell, a biochemist and one of the lead authors in the new study, there is hope that the damage done by science to the tomato can be undone, returning the fruit to its true nature.
“This information … provides a strategy to recapture quality characteristics that had been unknowingly bred out of modern cultivated tomatoes,” Powell says, predicting that “some of the qualities that people value in heirloom tomatoes can be made available in other types of tomatoes.”
Now, I recognize that in a world wrestling with a tough economy, global warming and other major issues, the possible reincarnation of the old-fashioned tomato isn’t exactly news to make you jump up and down on Oprah’s couch, should you be inclined to express joy in such a fashion. And on the scale of scientific achievement, it’s not as if they’re resurrecting the wooly mammoth from DNA salvaged from a melting glacier.
On the other hand, it’s often the small pleasures in life that see us through hard times. And if science can undo a mistake, if the sweet promise of a tomato’s deep scarlet can once again be made real, that’s good.
One less thing, you might say.