Friday, December 26, 2008

What is it about tomatoes?

There's something about growing tomatoes that's different than growing onions, say, or green peppers. It must be that brilliant bloom of red -- tomato red -- amidst the green. Those little buds of improbable color that swell into fat crimson globes. And for no other reason, apparently, than that we can argue about whether they are fruits or vegetables.

The first thing I do when I arrive on the island is acquire a half dozen tomato plants, usually from Marco the nurseryman, but this year from the friend of a friend. Then fill the pots with last year's compost and potting soil from Marco. Nothing but sand on our scruffy acre.

All of which I mention so that I can recommend Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a thick compendium of everything a curious and scientifically-inclined person would want to know about food. My wife has her Fanny Farmer and Julia Child. I have my McGee.

So I know that tomatoes started out as small, bitter berries growing on bushes in the west coast deserts of South America, that they were domesticated in Mexico (the name comes from the Aztec term for "plump fruit", tomatl, and that Europeans were slow to adopt them because of their resemblance to deadly nightshade, a poisonous plant. In fact, tomatoes are in the nightshade family, plants that stockpile chemical defenses, mostly bitter alkaloids. It took many generations of selective breeding to render tomatoes harmless.

Do you want to know what chemicals give tomatoes their flavor? McGee has it all. He'll tell you too the chemical reason why vine ripened tomatoes are more favorable than the ones you buy at the supermarket. So what? you say. Shut up an eat. Not me. I love knowing the secret history of what goes into my mouth. Where it came from. What it's related to. And why a particular arrangement of atoms -- carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, almost entirely -- stuck together like Tinker Toys, accounts for the flavors we enjoy. Citrus. Eucalyptus. Mint. Clove. Cinnamon. Anise. Vanilla. Thyme. Oregano. Tarragon. My wife has her herb garden. I have McGee's lovely diagrams of organic compounds.