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'Ripe': One Man's Quest For The Perfect Tomato

Once upon a time, tomatoes were considered poisonous, even dangerous. But gradually, the plump produce made its way into our homes and onto our plates.

Arthur Allen tells the story of the tomato's redemption, popularization and eventual modification in his book, Ripe: The Search For The Perfect Tomato.

The tomato's versatility wore down its detractors bit by bit, Allen tells NPR's Jackie Lyden. "There's so many different ways that you can eat it," he says.

Ripe: The Search For The Perfect Tomato
By Arthur Allen
Hardcover, 320 pages
Counterpoint
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt

It first caught on with peasants in the Mediterranean, where it grows very well, and eventually the protests of doctors who considered it poisonous "gave way to good sense and taste."

Allen found tomatoes a rich subject for study, with a history full of stories and lore. "Anyone who cares about food usually has strong feelings about tomatoes," he says.

It's a familiar food, he explains. "The tomato's the original back garden summer edible that you remember from your grandmother's garden, or your own garden."

Additionally, tomatoes are a satisfying subject because of the changes in the tomato, and the way people are often dissatisfied with the tomatoes at the local grocery.

Consumers' interest in heirloom tomatoes and varieties in which taste trumps durability has changed the way producers think about what's on the vine. For decades, says Allen, larger commercial growers considered flavor an "afterthought."

Nowadays, tomatoes that taste better command higher prices.

Allen found his favorite tomato in California: the Speckled Peach. He brought the seeds back to the East Coast, and planted them. But the result was mediocre.

"We just realized it's something about California -- the sun, the soil, whatever it is -- and that's very characteristic of tomatoes. Certain types go in certain areas."

Nonetheless, Allen celebrates the appealing diversity in color and shape of homegrown tomatoes.

"Part of gardening is just the fun of it, and the aesthetics of it," he says. "And then we fool ourselves into thinking that these are wonderful tomatoes, when really," he says, laughing, "they're just average."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Jacki Lyden.

Here's a joke you might recall from 1994.

(Soundbite of movie, "Pulp Fiction")

Ms. UMA THURMAN (Actress): (as Mia Wallace) Three tomatoes are walking down the street: Papa Tomato, Mama Tomato and Baby Tomato. Baby Tomato starts lagging behind and Papa Tomato gets really angry, goes back and squishes him, says: Ketchup. Ketchup.

LYDEN: That was Uma Thurman, of course, in "Pulp Fiction."

Now, here's the thing. Centuries earlier, Uma couldnt have made that bad joke, not because it wasnt funny or because ketchup hadn't been invented yet, but because the tomato was viewed as poisonous, dangerous - chefs shunned it. But gradually it made its way into our diets, our homes, our tasteless jokes.

Journalist Arthur Allen tells the story of the tomato's redemption, popularization and eventual modification in his new book "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato."

And he joins us now from the studios of member station WSUI in Iowa City, Iowa.

Arthur Allen, welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

Mr. ARTHUR ALLEN (Author, "Ripe: The Search For The Perfect Tomato"): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

LYDEN: You know, I mentioned that in this book you say that the tomato had really quite a hurdle in being introduced to Europe and North America because it was viewed as a poison. How did it win over its detractors?

Mr. ALLEN: I think it was just - you know, the tomato has a way of sort wearing you down because it's unavoidable. There's so many different ways that you can eat it. And I think it caught on with the peasantry first in the south in the Mediterranean, where it grows so well. And you know, doctors all thought that tomatoes were poisonous and that finally gave way to good sense and taste.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Another surprising chapter in tomato history is a court actually ruled about whether it was a vegetable or a fruit. Could you tell us about that?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes, none other than our own Supreme Court was called in to answer this question, when vegetable and fruit importers were trying to get the New York Customs Office to allow them to import tomatoes without a duty. And at the time you could import fruit without a duty but vegetables had a surcharge.

And they argued that tomatoes were not a vegetable, they were a fruit. And the court found that, yes, botanically tomatoes are a fruit but they're legally a vegetable.

LYDEN: There's that wonderful notion of throwing a rotten tomato at a politician or an actor. Apart from the legal niceties, why dont we do that any longer?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think it's because tomatoes are too hard now. So it stops becoming a kind gentle act of defiance that only leads to a dry cleaning bill, to something that, you know, could get you serious time in prison. I mean, you know, and you want those soft goopy tomatoes if you're going to really get a politician or a bad musician. So I think we could still use our backyard tomatoes for throwing at politicians, but not commercial tomatoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Now, why this particular produce? I know that writers have been looking at salt or fish. There are certainly lots and lots of books on bread. You chose the tomato. Why?

Mr. ALLEN: I started out actually looking at strawberries, but I just found tomatoes are a much richer subject. I mean there's just so many stories and lore, and they mean so much to many of us. I mean anyone who cares about food usually has strong feelings about tomatoes. And part of the reason is just because in a sense the tomato's the original back garden summer edible that you remember from your grandmother's garden, or your own garden.

And then just the changes in the tomato and the way that peoples are often dissatisfied with, you know, the Safeway tomato or the supermarket tomato. And I wanted to find out, you know, how the supermarket tomato got to be the way it is.

LYDEN: Has the advent of the small farmer growing heirloom varieties and the farmers' markets that we see had any impact on this massive global tomato enterprise? Does our desire for something really tasty right now make a difference?

Mr. ALLEN: I think it has. I mean I think for one thing, you're seeing a lot more interest in the larger commercial tomato growers to introduce varieties that have flavor. I mean flavor for decades was really an afterthought. Nowadays, if you want to compete, you can sell tomatoes at a higher price if you have more flavor.

LYDEN: Well, what is your favorite kind to grow?

Mr. ALLEN: I like the Early Girls because the sort of the local season in Washington just started in the last few weeks. When I was in California, I had some that I really loved called the Speckled Peach. And so I brought the seeds back and I tried to grow them, and they came out completely nothing-burger tomatoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And we just realized it's something about California - you know, the sun, the soil, whatever it is. And thats very characteristic of tomatoes -that certain types go in certain areas. But just the sheer diversity in the color and shape and so on, its just very appealing, because part of gardening is just the fun of it and the aesthetics of it. And then we fool ourselves into thinking that, you know, these are wonderful tomatoes, when really they're just average.

LYDEN: Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and your tomato quest with us.

Arthur Allen is the author of "Ripe: The Search For The Perfect Tomato."

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. ALLEN: It's been my pleasure. Have a nice tomato-y summer.

LYDEN: Read about one grower's golden honey bunch tomatoes, which Allen describes as so extravagantly flavored, they're nearly tropical, in an excerpt from "Ripe" at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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