Hot tomatoes are what you pick out of your garden in August, if you're lucky. And hot tomatoes are just about the hottest and most popular vegetable out there, surpassed in consumption each year only by potatoes. Needless to say, tomatoes beat potatoes in nutrition by miles. Filled with vitamins A and C, tomatoes are high in dietary fiber and low in sodium, with no saturated fat or cholesterol. They are also a good source of vitamin K, vitamin E, thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, potassium, and manganese. Whew! Tomatoes are one of the best nutritional packages around and are commonly available to nearly everyone.
Think of all the different ways you eat tomatoes today. Start with sliced on your plate at a picnic on a hot summer day. Move to piled on a sandwich, then to wedges nestled around a salad, and then to hollowed out and stuffed full of tuna or crab salad on a restaurant plate. Tomatoes cubed into spicy chili. Tomatoes diced up tiny into tacos.
Then start thinking about tomato products. Ketchup, of course. Tomato sauce poured over meatloaf. Tomatoes chopped up with onions and cilantro into salsa for a burrito. Tomatoes simmered with oregano, basil, and garlic into rich goodness to top spaghetti. Tomatoes drowning with molasses and chili peppers in your favorite barbeque sauce. Tomato juice, tomato paste, sun-dried tomatoes, canned crushed tomatoes, Italian-style, Mexican-style, stewed. Is your mouth watering yet?
Producing tomatoes to fill all these needs is big business. Commercial farms in California grow tomatoes on acres of sun-drenched soil. Their harvesting machines can gather over a ton of tomatoes each minute, and the tomatoes are then sent to a processing plant that can handle over a million pounds of tomatoes every hour. Tomatoes from these farms are specially developed to ripen simultaneously, maximizing yield and efficiency in harvest. The fruits are fleshy, with small seed compartments and thick skins to withstand machine harvesting. The varieties grown here, with names like Heinz 2401, are resistant to viruses and fungi that plague home gardeners, as well as to nematodes and beetles. Corporate giants like Heinz, Campbell's, Pizza Hut, and Ragu pay for the research that turns out these commercial crops, and they reap the rewards of the harvest.
At the other end of the spectrum lie heirloom tomatoes, with names like Brandywine, Marvel Stripe, and Green Zebra. To be classified as an heirloom, the seeds must have bred true for at least 40 years. Heirlooms have become increasingly popular in the last few years and they turn up in organic bistros as well as pricey fine-dining establishments. These varieties are not suitable for commercial production and are usually grown by individuals in small gardens. But individuals cannot supply the growing demand for these tasty reminders of days past, and organic farms, much smaller than the giant commercial operations and often family-operated, are beginning to offer a more reliable supply to restaurateurs and grocers.
The escalating demand for heirlooms is based mostly on flavor, although increasing awareness of pesticides, pollution, and Big Farming have swayed some converts. Consumers have grown tired of the "green baseballs" found on produce shelves these days and long for the flavor of real tomatoes, the kind their parents picked out of the family garden a generation ago. Heirloom varieties offer both flavor and a greener footprint.
Whether out of a can or from an organic garden, tomatoes hold a place--indeed, many places--in today's menus and lifestyles. Lest we forget, the tomato is the basis of that lovely invention, the Bloody Mary.