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Q&A: 'Ripe' author Arthur Allen

When hungry, smart journalists tackle topics like tomatoes, we all learn a lot. In this week’s Food section, Barry Estabrook introduces us to John “Jay” Scott and his Tasti-Lee, the next best thing. Last month, Arthur Allen published “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato” (Counterpoint). The former Associated Press foreign reporter and Washingtonian spent several years researching tomatoes the world over: in farms and fields, back yards, research labs and history books.

Arthur Allen still likes tomatoes. (Nick Allen)

Allen, 51, offers a rounded account that engages and connects the dots in tomato development, much the same way that, say, a locular cavity holds the seeds and gel of the ripest, sweetest fruit. If you’ve ever wondered why tomatoes became so indispensable to Italians or why growing sorry tomatoes is such big business or why the seeds of a plant that thrives in California don’t yield the same results in your own back yard, you’ll want to read Allen’s book.

(Would it be too early to speak of this year’s Top Tomato contest? Cooks, start your recipe engines.)

I spoke with Allen recently, after attending his reading and book signing at Politics and Prose Bookstore. Excerpts follow.

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

How did tomatoes evolve from bitter to sweet?

I’m not sure how bitter they were long ago. But i think people in Europe -- in Asia, too -- found the plants that had the nicest, sweetest fruits and grew seeds from those. It all happened before there was formal breeding.

What does the phrase "hybrid heirlooms" bring to mind?

I don’t see any reason not to try to improve what you eat.

We’re in an heirloom craze, and there are two reasons for it. Heirloom tomatoes are diverse; all these colors and shapes. The slightly annoying aspect is that people seem to think heirlooms are a symbol of authenticity -- as if [otherwise] you’re not getting a real tomato experience. For as long as people have been growing crops, the hand of man or woman has been making choices about what the best varieties are. Hybridization is an extension of traditional breeding techniques. Another step forward, except it is intentional instead of waiting to see what happens to pop up in your garden from a bee that has cross-fertilized your tomato plants.

Describe the perfect tomato — one that exists beyond your own back yard.

The best I’ve ever eaten were hybrids, right off the vine in a really good growing environment in Mexico. I really liked the Speckled Peach kind I had at Tomato Fest in Carmel, California. But when I tried to grow them in Washington, they were bland.

When you bite into a really good tomato, it should have a mixture of sweetness and acidity going on – especially in the goo part of it. The sweet has to be strong, and the acid has to be just strong enough.

Your book reveals a big secret about "vine-ripened" tomatoes, those bunches on stems you can buy at the grocery store.

Yes, the secret has to do with its sticky gene. It allows growers to cut tomatoes off the larger vines and transport the fruit with stems still attached. The stem has concentrated levels of CIS 3 hexanol, a real strong component of what we identify as tomato smell. The fruit looks nice and red and the aroma pulls us to buy them. A lot of them can be grown in hothouses. But those tomatoes don't usually taste as good as we'd like.

Have you tasted the Tasti-Lee?

I have. It’s really good. Jay Scott is so cool. He’s one of the greatest living tomato growers, and he is trying to keep tomato growers going in Florida. Scott’s done pretty well at producing tomatoes that taste good.

What’s interesting is that there aren’t too many breeders in the States developing good flavor in hybrid tomatoes. Most of the research comes from Israel and the Netherlands.

Whatever happened to UglyRipes, the kind introduced a few years back?

Basically and in shorthand, it was grown in Florida, then declared a non-Florida tomato. The industry there tried to kill them, saying they didn’t meet marketing specifications. The developer [Joe Procacci] lost millions of dollars and had to feed his crops to the cows. By the time the state relented and UglyRipes could be shipped, there were tomatoes coming from everywhere, lots of other worthy competition in the winter market.

What does the World Processing Tomato Council do?

It’s a way for people in the business to snoop on each other, learn some new techniques and gossip about the giants of the industry. That said, there’s a surprising amount of real info sharing. One guy from a European company told me he’d like to buy more tomatoes from the Chinese but wanted to make sure there weren’t levels of pesticides in them that would cause problems later on. Morning Star, a company that produces a third of all the tomatoes in the United States, let the Chinese come and tour its facilities. The Chinese measured everything: the size of the pit for discarding tomato waste, the horsepower of generators….

Is it healthier to eat processed tomatoes rather than fresh?

In terms of lycopene, yes. It becomes concentrated, and when it’s cooked with oil, the lycopene is more available to your cells. It’s not the only good thing about eating tomatoes. There’s a tiny bit of protein and there are vitamins.

I do think pizza itself is a healthy food – in moderation, and done the right way.

What made Italians fall in love with tomatoes, especially?

Well, they grow really well there. The Mediterranean climate has a long, dry growing season that’s the same as western South America, where tomatoes were said to originate. Italians also came up with interesting ways of preserving them. Even before the industry of canning, they would make them into cakes with olive oil. Through the 20th century you could see people around Salerno hanging bunches of cherry tomatoes out to dry. They look like grapes hanging in bunches.

Explain the "cult" of San Marzano.

Gee, I think like all tomatoes grown in Vesuvian soil and then cooked, they do have a strong flavor, and you get accustomed to it. I tasted them in the field and they were bland, maybe a little tart. But canned, they have a lot of strong sugars. I participated in a couple of taste tests involving "original heirloom" San Marzanos and open-pollinated varieties saved by a research center.

In your book, you give a shoutout to Washington’s Italian Pizza Kitchen and its use of Stanislaus sauce.

Almost all sauces are reconstituted, from cooking tomatoes at a high temperature and evaporating them to create a concentrated paste that can be stored for two years without going bad and can be transported easily. If you’re going to make tomato sauce, you need to add water and cook it again. The sauce made from tomatoes grown in Stanislaus County in California is cooked only once, so they say it preserves volatiles, or flavor components. That’s probably true, but I don’t know anyone who has done a study about it. Stanislaus companies sued to try and distinguish their sauce from the ones that are common commercially.

Papa John’s used it, too, but two years ago they switched. to Heinz tomato sauce made from tomato paste. [UPDATE 5/5: Chris Sternberg, senior vice president for communications at Papa John's, contacted The Food section and says: Papa John's uses only fresh-packed tomato sauce and has never used tomato paste for its sauce. Sternberg says the company uses fresh-packed sauce from both Stanislaus and Heinz.]

Do you like tomatoes any more or less than when you started working on "Ripe"?

You know, I’ve noticed there are greenhouse tomatoes in the offseason that in my humble opinion are pretty good. I like Camparis, which are from a Dutch seed company called Enza Zaden. They’re quite sweet and have Japanese seed stock in them. I think small Splendidos are quite good – damn good for a supermarket tomato. I’m ashamed to admit they are almost as good as Sun Golds.

By The Food Section  |  May 4, 2010; 5:20 PM ET
Categories:  Books  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, books, tomatoes  
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Next: Chat Leftovers: Banana bread with appeal


Thanks for this, Bonnie. I've had so many boring heirloom tomatoes. I'm all for biodiversity, but hybridization can be about flavor. In the end, taste (and nutrition) should rule in the kitchen.

Posted by: HoppinJohn | May 5, 2010 7:53 AM | Report abuse

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