When I was a child, during the months of July and August the family laundry basket would get a workout. With me on one side and my little sister on the other, we’d lug bushels of
garden tomatoes from the yard to the kitchen. We lived just
outside of Chicago, and the rich soils and my family’s greenish
thumbs brought us an annual bounty of tomatoes that we’d eat
fresh, then process the rest in jars for the long winter.
In that warped blue plastic basket, my mom would shift the fruits
around and select a perfect sun-warmed tomato. She’d look at it
for a few seconds, then place the red ripe fruit on a worn cutting
board under our sharpest knife. As the skin would yield to the
slice, a drip of sweet red-orange juice would race down the edge,
ending as an aromatic puddle. She’d sprinkle on a little salt, then
eat it with a fork, one tiny bite at a time. It was a delicate and
tasty slice of summer, and a moment to savor. The familiar fruit
was in its finest form.
Yesterday I stood at a local sandwich shop and watched a
corporately-festooned employee deal out funny pink “tomato”
slices from a neat stack in an icy incubator onto a bed of anemic
white lettuce. This was a tomato in its modern form, a remarkable
departure from the red orb of the family garden, now a half-ripe,
pathetic slab of sandwich decoration. The definition of “tomato”
had officially shifted, moved from a prized fruit to a clownish
Why have tomatoes changed so much? Consumers demand
uniform, affordable, safe fruit, and they want it 365 days a
year. But tomatoes, like any fruit, are difficult to produce. Tiny
fragile plants must be nurtured in acres of production plantings.
These plants are then under assault from nature, as weather and
plant diseases haunt even the most pristine fields. Growing,
harvesting, shipping, and retailing perishable fruit is not an easy
business, and to have a slice of tomato in January, on a Winnipeg
fast-food hamburger, is almost a little miraculous.
So how can we make that large-scale production tomato on par
with the ones from my family garden? Today scientists use their
knowledge to improve the tomato, orchestrating the unlikely
marriage of the best heirloom sensory traits with the qualities
required for wide-scale production. It is using good-old plant sex
to move genes, followed by arduous searching for the rare vine
in fields of failures that yields fruits with production quality and
The search for the perfect tomato has been going on at the
University of Florida’s Horticultural Sciences Department.
There, Dr. Harry Klee has spent decades pondering the perfect
tomato, and now science tools have finally caught up with his
ambitions, providing new molecular tricks that make the elusive
tomato variety more likely to be found. It is as if he’s looking for
the proverbial needle in a haystack— but now he’s armed with a
powerful magnet. This should make things easier.