The quest for the perfect tomato

"Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time." Rebecca Wells, “The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder,” 2009

I was attracted to Rebecca Wells’ fourth novel because I enjoyed “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and because I wanted to get to know someone named Calla Lily.

I almost didn’t buy the book because it received a lot of negative reviews from readers who were expecting Wells to produce another “Ya-Ya,” which stayed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 68 weeks after it was released in 1996. That extraordinary success probably put a lot of pressure on Wells for subsequent books, and I can imagine her writing in the line “Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time” as a reminder to herself to just keep doing what she loved.

Now that it’s harvest time, Rebecca Wells’ quote makes me think about our quest for perfect produce. Last spring when I set my tomato plants into the garden, I envisioned all of the beautiful, bright red Abe Lincolns, plump golden-orange Persimmons, and deep mahogany Tasmanian Chocolate tomatoes I would pluck from the vines in the not-too-distant future. In my mind’s eye, all these would-be fruits of my labor were perfectly round, unblemished testaments of a gardener who knows what she’s doing.

Some of my tomatoes meet those lofty expectations, but many of them are oddly shaped and have a few creases and blotches on them. A few have worm holes and peck marks from curious blue jays. The only testament these tomatoes offer is you can’t expect real tomatoes to look like the picture on the seed packet.

Yet, that’s exactly what we expect our tomatoes and other produce to look like, thanks to expensive marketing and breeding practices aimed at uniformity. The vegetables and fruit we see on television have been carefully selected and then waxed and polished like hardwood floors. The food has the look of a supermodel, but tastes, well, like a hardwood floor.

Still, I admit I’ve looked for the prettiest produce at the grocery store, spurning a tomato if it’s bruised but forgiving it for its tastelessness and lack of nutrition. What’s a salad in the wintertime without a store-bought tomato, right?

USDA regulations have encouraged our warped priorities by stipulating that all commercially grown fruits and vegetables must be at least 90 percent blemish-free. As a result, up to 30 percent of all produce on large commercial farms is fated for animal feed or field compost.

Produce that does make the grade has likely been bred, not for taste or nutrient value, but for its ability to withstand long-distance transport. For example, a lot of the tomatoes in grocery stores during the winter months come from Florida and Mexico.

Barry Estabrook, author of “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit” (2011), points out that Florida’s humidity breeds lots of pests, so farmers spray fungicides, pesticides and herbicides in their quest for large crop yields. After all, the farmers get paid for their tomatoes by the pound, not by how healthy, or even edible, they are.

Luckily, I grew up in Florida and helped my dad grow tomatoes in our garden without a lot of chemicals, so I learned what a good Florida-grown tomato tastes like.

Of course, tomatoes aren’t the only example of consumers’ foolhardy search for visually perfect produce; the Red Delicious apple shares a similar story. The apple variety, first called Hawkeye, came about from a natural mutation that occurred on an Iowa farm in 1870. The fruit went on to win a nationwide taste test, and was exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.

So delicious was this happenstance apple strain that it was renamed Red Delicious, and industrial horticulturalists enthusiastically began breeding programs to make the apples more uniform in color, size and shape. Unfortunately, in the process they created tough, bitter skin and mushy, oversweet flesh. As a result, Red Delicious apples are beautiful, but they taste terrible.

I can attest to this because I was one of millions of American kids who got Red Delicious apples every day in my lunchbox and with school-bought lunches. I traded them off when I could to little boys who threw them at the girls they liked; to this day, apples are my least favorite fruit. My dad and I didn’t grow apples in our garden, so the off-taste of Red Delicious apples has stuck in my head.

Growing my own tomatoes has given me an appreciation for produce that looks less than perfect. I look at the tomatoes I’ve nurtured this season through late spring cold snaps, triple-digit summer afternoons and relentless smoke, and I think they’re all beautiful, even the ones that look like an English bulldog.

Besides, my garden-fresh tomatoes truly do taste delicious.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at For more about gardening, visit her blog at

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