At a conference, I was eating at the hotel bar, and one of the other patrons was having a discussion with the bartender about tomatoes. The discussion started because the customer requested no tomatoes on what he was ordering, and as a chatty customer, he started going on about his history with not liking tomatoes. One of the things he mentioned is that people claim that, if you like ketchup, then you should like tomatoes.
While he was a chatty customer, I am a nosy customer, and at this point I felt it necessary to let him know why he didn’t like tomatoes. After finishing the explanation, I told twitter about how I informed the man of the reason for his tomato hatred, and twitter asked back, “Well, why doesn’t he like tomatoes?”
He didn’t like tomatoes for the same reason I never liked tomatoes, even though I enjoy tomato sauce and similar. The reason is because he never had fresh tomatoes. If you go to the supermarket, you are buying tomatoes from people who make deals with supermarket chains to sell tomatoes. The supermarket hates to be out of tomatoes, so it doesn’t want to go with small suppliers who rely upon “seasons” and “weather” to grow their tomatoes. Instead, they’ll go with a number of large-scale tomato farmers, some of whom are in distant tropical countries, who can ensure the shipment of tomatoes on a regular interval.
The problem with ripe tomatoes is that they are fragile, so attempting to ship ripe tomatoes across the country or across the ocean is fraught with peril. So growers ship unripened tomatoes, which can’t be harmed. These tomatoes, when they are near their location, are then dosed with ethylene gas, which causes them to go from a clearly unripened green color to what, for all the world, appears to be a ripe red color.
Sadly, the coloration is really the only change in the tomato when it is gassed. The flavor remains the same as when it was picked, which is to say that there is no flavor worth mentioning. After people get used to buying tomatoes in the grocery store, they start to believe that tomatoes are supposed to taste like that. At that point, they start thinking that they don’t like tomatoes, and only like tomato-based products.
I’ve seen sources claiming that, when harvested late enough, a green tomato is indistinguishable from a fully vine-ripened tomato after being gassed. So presuming that most tomatoes are harvested at the right time, then something more must be going on. That “something” is breeding tomatoes that are made for shipment and looks rather than for flavor. People in grocery stores, no longer knowing what tomatoes taste like, purchase primarily on looks. If there are ugly, orgoodness partially rotted tomatoes, then they’ll skip past those and to the ones that are round, big, and with a smooth skin.
If you use the looks of the tomato as a guide, and you know that tomato shipments are damaging to fragile, ripe tomatoes, then you know understand why the tomatoes are bred for toughness, and consequently why ripe tomatoes (which are delicate) are more likely to be passed over than purchased.
To learn if you really like tomatoes, either buy them at a reputable dealer at your farmer’s market, preferably one with heirloom varieties that look ugly but taste great, or you can grow your own. Tomatoes grow easily in pots outdoors, so if you have the capability, give it a try. The best tomato is one that you grow, pull from the vine just as it’s ripened, and eat immediately. Possibly with some bread, lettuce, and bacon.
Finally, the question is “why do ripe tomatoes taste better than non-ripe tomatoes?” The answer is that fruit plants spread their seeds by getting animals to eat the fruit and consequently, the seeds. Those seeds don’t digest, so a few hours later, the seeds have been, er, deposited on the ground with some other handy plant nutrients, ready to grow into something when weather conditions become favorable.
The survival of the plant, then, involves getting animals to eat the seeds at the right time. If the fruits are eaten too early, there are potentially two problems. The first, incidental one, is that the seed might not have developed to the right stage where it is viable. The second is that, if the seeds are planted midway through the warm season, then they might start to grow, but then autumn and winter come along and kill the plant before it bears fruit. That’s the worst-case scenario. So the plants will try to encourage animals to eat them later in the season which should keep the plants from starting to grow before the next year’s growing season starts.