The unbearable sadness of winter tomatoes


Journalist Barry Estabrook has won two James Beard Awards for his writing about food. His newest book, called Tomatoland, is about ... er ... the tomato. More importantly, it's about what it takes to grow food that can meet full-year, everywhere, low-cost demand and how the changes we've made to agriculture have both helped us and hurt us. You can read an excerpt, about growing tomatoes in Florida, at On Earth magazine. It's a prime example of the kind of trade-offs Estabrook is talking about. To get a glistening red tomato in the depths of winter, you have to grow the fruit in a place and using techniques that pretty much ensure the tomatoes you do get won't taste nearly as good as you want them to.

From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective, you would have to be an idiot to attempt to commercially grow tomatoes in a place like Florida. The seemingly insurmountable challenges start with the soil itself. Or more accurately, the lack of it. Although an area south of Miami has limestone gravel as a growing medium, the majority of the state's tomatoes are raised in sand. Not sandy loam, not sandy soil, but pure sand, no more nutrient rich than the stuff vacationers like to wiggle their toes into on the beaches of Daytona and St. Pete.

Why bother trying to grow something as temperamental as a tomato in such a hostile environment?

The answer has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with money. Florida just happens to be warm enough for a tomato to survive at a time of year when the easily accessed population centers in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with their hordes of tomato-starved consumers, are frigid, their fields frozen solid under carpets of snow. But for tomatoes to survive long enough to take advantage of that huge potential market, Florida growers have to wage what amounts to total war against the elements. Forget the Hague Convention: We're talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.

Image: Tomatoes at Pike Place, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from maplessinseattle's photostream


  1. I spend an inordinate amount of time growing and caring for tomatoes. I adore them, but I have become convinced that something sinister happened about ten years ago. All commercial tomatoes now taste like fish to me. Not just ‘a little fishy’, but like a slab of cold halibut that’s a day past its best before date. WTF? I know they’ve put fish DNA in tomatoes, but surely it would be impossible to taste that??

  2. What the supermarket labels “tomato” should be called “round red tomato-like object” for the sake of accuracy.

    There are lots of heirloom varieties of tomatoes that don’t take like wood.

    1. I understand Larry Craig, Ted Haggard and Mark Foley have all stated a strong preference for tomatoes that DO taste like wood.

  3. Tomatoes are somewhat labour-intensive.

    Hence the fact that only hobbyists and mexican workers harvest them in north america.

    If you doubt this, look into the tomato greenhouse industry in southern Ontario, Canada, where we fly in Mexican workers.

    Canadian tomatoes tend toward large watery centres, but there’s definitely enough of them.

    1. “Tomatoes are somewhat labour-intensive. Hence the fact that only hobbyists and mexican workers harvest them in north america.”

      My husband is neither a hobbyist nor Mexican. He’s an urban farmer who grows tomatoes right here in N. America, processes them into salsa and sells the salsa.

  4. The tomatoes in Colorado are terrible. Hard, white and tasteless for the most part. Occasional decent heirlooms from farmer’s markets. But I was spoiled growing up with Hanovers in Virginia… in my opinion those are the best tomatoes on the planet. Some Mediterranean countries have decent tomatoes but I would put a good Hanover up against almost anything.

  5. If you think it’s bad in Florida, you should check out the situation in Almeria,South of Spain. Pretty much the entire province is desertifed and covered in plastic greenhouses , apparently the only man-made structure visible from space. They supply North Europe’s supermarkets with tasteless and unripe hydroponic tomatoes year-round. The workers are mostly (illegal ) immigrants from Morocco and eastern Europe, underpaid to work with respirators in toxic conditions, not to mention the intense heat. The only people desperate enough to do this work.

    The greenhouses look like huge salt plains from a distance and they reflect the intense solar radiation, nicely contributing to the greenhouse effect , and the further scorching of the area. Not to mention the enormous amounts of water they use up, a pretty scarce resource.

    The unbearable sadness of supermarkets.

    1. “apparently the only man-made structure visible from space.”

      Actually there are a whole lot of man-made structures visible from space.

    2. In response to Anon’s comment about Spanish greenhouses and the greenhouse effect.

      While tomatoes grown in greenhouses may taste boring a good thing about greenhouses is that they increase the amount of light reflected back from Earths surface which in face will probably reduce human caused global warming

      You can read about the growing movement encouraging people to paint their roofs white to help reduce heat buildup in cities, etc.

  6. The best tomatoes are brandywines. The flavor is beyond compare, but they are come in so late – though once tehy come you’ll have too many.

  7. Here in Central Europe a lot of the tomatoes you can buy come from Spain.
    We are basically importing water from the driest place in Europe.
    What the hell?

  8. The answer is that consumers want ‘tomatoes’ year round. Even if they’re substandard. It’s a perception thing as in “Why can’t I get a good fresh tomato in December”. Answer: You can’t really grow a good fresh tomato in December—but here’s one crappy one you can buy.

    Good tomatoes need good soil, heat, and humidity and rain.

    To me they’re seasonal things and after the season I use canned tomatoes for sauces, etc.

    We wouldn’t expect oysters to be served raw from the Gulf in the heat of the summer and have them taste the same (or be as safe) as cool weather months when they’re in season.

  9. Yes, the taste of tomatoes are important…but I’d say that the more important issue is the labor conditions that much of the growing is done in, which are pretty much modern day slavery.

  10. I’d just like to say that the tomato pictured looks particularly succulent and delicious. . .

  11. I’ve been growing tomatoes for years (I am anti-lawn, and so we converted alot of useless grass into vegetable and flower gardens) but last year we were hit with a nasty tomato blight. Killed every last tomato plant. I had to remove them and bag them so the fungus or whatever it was wouldn’t spread to everything else. Broke my heart. I’ll try tomatoes again this year, but it’s been a wet season so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if the blight returned.
    Nothing beats homegrown, unless from a local farmers market. The commercial supermarket tomatoes have no flavor.

  12. Tomatoes in California are pretty pathetic, even though we grow all kinds of great produce. The secret to getting good tomatoes is to buy the smaller types. Beefsteak/standard supermarket tomatoes are almost always awful unless you grow them yourself. Tiny varieties like sugar plum or grape are usually much sweeter. The grotesquely-overpriced and half-unripened tomato medley from Trader Joe’s occasionally has some little blackish ones that are really delicious.

    1. Good news! Late blight spores only stay in the soil if they’ve infected potatoes. While it’s the tomatoes that suffer the most, it’s the potatoes that you need to be sure are completely out of the ground.

      If what you had was late blight, you didn’t grow potatoes last year, and it’s not too wet this year, you should be fine.

  13. God, bad week for tomatoes at least for me. Friend just shared the gourmet magazine article about how these flavorless Florida tomatoes are picked by virtual slaves… time to grow my own and can them for the winter I guess.

  14. Yes, Americans have long loved to use tomatoes for everything, and why wouldn’t we? The only problem is that somewhere along the way we apparently forgot that they are supposed to taste like something.

  15. It’s too late for me this year, but next year I might try to start up some heirloom ‘maters. I think the best technique in the world is to get yourself a couple of 5-gallon buckets and assemble a self-watering container (one bucket per plant, or you can use XBOX HUEG containers for multiple plants).

    With tomatoes, you need to lay down a layer of high-quality landscape cloth (don’t use the cheap stuff) to keep the tomato’s roots from getting into the water chamber. You run it from the bottom of the bucket all the way up to the top of the soil line. If those roots get to the water chamber, your tomatoes will end up tasteless and watery. As long as you lay down the cloth and keep the SWC full, use good potting soil, fertilizer, etc. – you will have some damn good tomatoes, and plenty of them!

    If you’re going the fertilizer route instead of organic compost, consider the occasional use of hydrogen peroxide, too. The 3% solution at the drug store is fine. Add maybe 1/2c-1c every other day if the plant is looking weak. The plant can access the oxygen in the peroxide, which relieves a lot of the stress associated with transplanting or recovering from an aphid infestation, etc. The downside is that it will kill ALL the bacteria in compost. Still, it’s something to keep in mind if you have a plant that’s on the ropes. The hydrogen peroxide won’t transfer from the fruit to you, either. By the time your tomatoes have ripened, the peroxide is long gone.

  16. Living in Virginia has truly spoiled me – Hanover tomatoes are, if not the best in the world, damn close. It’s to the point that local restaurants specifically advertise when the first harvest comes in. They’ll use hydroponics the rest of the year, but local tomato season is the only time I’ll buy them.

    We have a restaurant here that serves fried green tomatoes, and they use local sources whenever possible. They’re okay in the winter, but the summers, well… Glorious is a mild term.

  17. Strange that all fast food burgers and chicken sandwiches contain tomatoes as if it’s expected and desired, even though they are tasteless and slimy. Given the fact it seems that most Americans don’t like vegetables, I imagine that most people actually remove them from their burgers and sandwiches before eating…rendering this whole story doubly depressing.

  18. My parents have had a huge garden most of my life and I was spoiled rotten on home canned veggies year round.

    BLT’s with Blue Plate Mayo are my little slice of summer heaven.

  19. I’ve totally given up buying supermarket “fresh” tomatoes. I’ve conquered what amounts to a hedonistic desire for something that only looks like what the real thing tastes and smells like. Now it’s only local tomatoes when in season, including the ones I grow myself.

    I figure bottled tomato sauces at the super might be better, since the tomatoes are picked ripe near the production facility (or so I’ve heard).

    I also hear the tomatoes in tins have toxins from the cans seeped into them, but I haven’t looked that one up yet. Maybe bottled tomatoes in the store would be better? Maybe, if everyone recycled the bottles.

  20. I grow my heritage tomatoes from West Coat Seeds in planters full of this: Perfect results every year that go straight into the freezer so I can make kick ass salsa in January.

  21. The last time I bit into a great ‘slicing’ tomato…it was about twenty years ago. We were vacationing on the Big Island and driving around the circumference, starting in Kailua Kona. We stopped in Hilo to look at the water and I spied a deli across from the harbour. I ordered a bagel and cream cheese with a couple of slices of tomato. The first bite into this bagel was a taste explosion like I hadn’t tasted since childhood, back when tomatoes where really acidic. It was so goooooooood; I savored every bite, then made inquires about where the tomato came from. I was told it had been grown locally ‘upslope’ in alluvial soil. Was it the volcanic soil alone that explained the incredible flavor of those tomatoes?

    I’ve not tasted anything close to the wonderful intensity of that flavor since, except maybe a home-grown backyard tomato, if we’re lucky enough to get them ripened before the summer starts shutting down here in Colorado. Certainly not anything commercially grown. My aunt taught me to wrap up the large green ones in newspaper to finish ripening them. Also agree with Antinous – the best flavor I’ve found in growing tomatoes is in the smaller fruit varieties, although there are still plenty of folks around here who swear by ‘Early Girls’.

    I’m not even willing to discuss what passes for a tomato in the grocery stores these days. It’s like someone farted in the produce isle – I just try to ignore it, and move my cart quickly toward the deli counter. I’d sooner eat chocolate-covered cherries than a so-called ‘hothouse’ tomato.

  22. Grow your own. I grow organic tomatoes in Florida and have built up the soil so that it isn’t sand and they taste great.

  23. This is the perfect time to brag about the delicious tomatoes I plucked from my garden today.

    A photo of today’s haul:

    There’s hundreds more tomatoes, still green, or nearly ripe, on the eight plants in my garden. Those golden cherry tomatoes were amazing.

    Seriously, people. Nothing compares to home-grown.

    1. I have the same countertops and dishwasher as you! I just did a double-take looking at your photo of your haul!

      1. You wouldn’t happen to know exactly which style the countertop is, would you? Most of the house was newly remodeled when we bought it last year, and we need to install another counter. Preferably one that matches!

        1. My countertop photographs similar to yours. Mine was installed by the people who owned the hose before me, but they sell these counters at Home Despot. Hopefully the same holds true for you.

          Enjoy your haul!

        2. Thanks, that’s actually a good lead! They’re the obvious choice nearby, but the cabinets are from Ikea, so I thought maybe the counters came from there too. I’ll check tonight!

    2. Nice haul. Lots of zucchini. Always lots of zucchini. I like to pick them when they are a bit smaller than that, slice them up and pan fry them in lots of olive oil and plenty of salt until they are golden brown and crisp up, then throw in a ton of crushed garlic just for the last 30 seconds or so. I can eat that with fresh bread all summer long.

      1. A bunch of them are getting fried tonight! I would probably pick them a bit smaller than this in the future, but we were away all weekend and we got real rain for the first time in weeks. They got real big, real fast! They zoomed past the squash!

  24. There was a medical doctor who used to do a column for Mother Jones, I think, and I can’t recall his name, but he said: Gardening is so good for you, not gardening is like smoking.

    Not only do you end up with something nutritious and tasty, not only do you get to eat something organic that isn’t laced with pesticides, not only do you get some great low-intensity exercise, but you get to put up salsa or tomato sauce or whatever and eat it all winter.

  25. I haven’t had a good tomato since I moved to Florida. I order BLTs when I leave the state JUST to revel in the tomato goodness!
    And for the bacon.

  26. I live in the Redlands, that “south of Miami” area they are referring to. Down here you can find plenty of fresh, healthy tomatos, such as the “Florida Ugly” that are just bursting with flavor. You won’t find those up North, but that’s because in return for flavor, they give up that uniform, globe like shape that most shoppers expect. As for the soil, we have plenty of nutrient rich farmland. But most of the winter tomatos you buy in the U.S. aren’t from Florida anyway; their from Mexico. NAFTA made farming in South Florida unprofitable years ago. Farmers sold their land to homebuilders. Homebuilders sold their overpriced homes to people who couldn’t afford them. Economy crashed. So there’s that. I’ll go eat a tomato now.

  27. Yeah, the ones you get in the store don’t even taste like food. +1 the what Antinous / Moderator said, the little grape ones do taste better. While we’re on it, what the hell happened to peaches?!?!! They use to be sweet, juicy and delicious, but now they’re as hard as an apple, dry and tasteless!

    1. Don’t get me started on the death of the fuzzy peach!

      They were so upset by bruising that they interbred with nectarines, to the point that all we have now are slightly sweeter nectarines.

      I remember the fuzzy skin and the sinking sensation of the first bite, after which you were covered in sweet juice.

  28. Since there are so many green thumbs in attendance here, I have a question: my arugula is getting decimated by earwigs. Any suggestions on how to get rid of those buggers?

    1. Earwigs like moist conditions with lots of sheltered places to hide, so you can make your garden less friendly to them by clearing away dense ground cover near the vegetable garden, or pull up some plants if the garden itself is crowded and damp. Might even want to pull the mulch away from the arugula for a while. Trapping them apparently works: put half an inch of vegetable oil in a tuna can (and, I assume, sink it into the soil so they can fall in).

      Toads eat them. When I find a toad in my yard I chase it into the garden (or carry it if I run out of patience). A broken clay pot makes a decent toad shelter in the garden. Also it’s a good earwig shelter, so YMMV.

      In my garden (western Iowa) a variety called Cherokee Purple does well. There are lots of other good ones, and trying to grow them all may take a long time. (I better get started.)

    2. Seven Dust, pest soap or alcohol pest spray. You can find recipes for those latter two online. Those are your first line of defense.

  29. I have never find such difference because I had never noticed. I don’t like tomato so much rarely I used it. But I will definietly find the taste.

  30. I’m wondering why, at the end of June, there’s hardly any summer fruit in the stores. The fruit aisles are still almost all apples, pears and citrus. Hardly any berries or drupes.

    1. I talked to my favorite berry gal on Sunday, while purchasing a ‘berry share’ from her new CSA. She tells me the berries here are behind in ripening, not enough sun and too much rain (and hail!). I’ve heard similar stories out of southern California, unseasonably cool weather. Is true?

      What’s a drupe?

      1. Drupes are fruits with a big stone, like peaches, apricots, cherries, etc.

        And yes, it’s true about the SoCal weather. Our daily highs in Palm Springs were ~7° under normal for May and the first week of June. We’re supposed to hit 112° the next few days, so Spring appears to be over.

  31. I’ve hated tomatoes for my entire life, but last month in Hawaii, a girl gave me one just farmed organically on the North Shore of Oahu, and it was seriously one of the best things I’ve ever eaten – bursting with flavor, almost meaty in its texture and perfect salty-sweet melody. Then I thought back to the decades I spent eating fucking tasteless, mushy, mostly-slimy-seeds-like-little-fetuses tomatoes that chain grocery stores sell, and I got pissed.

  32. I grew up in a family that grew a sizable percentage of its vegetables and fruits. Despite having ideal tomatoes, I never learned to like them raw. I still grow tomatoes every year, give most of them away, and cook the rest or buy canned to cook with.

    PS Try picking the whole tomato plant out of the ground just before the first frost and hanging it upside down in a cold place, but not freezing, like a garage. Green tomatoes will continue to ripen for months. We’ve had pretty good tomatoes in December or January from plants pulled up in September or October.

  33. We’re going into season two only growing heirloom tomatoes. If you haven’t tried a traditional tomato, you don’t know what a tomato tastes like. Most of the varieties we grew last year and are growing this year are low acid, reasonably sweet and rather meaty.

  34. For the most part I just won’t do tomatoes in the winter. It’s not that they’re not available; it’s just that it’s not worth the formality of eating them.

  35. Oh, lots of feedback! Had just bought some diatomaceous earth (besides it sounds like it has tomatoes in it already), so definitely going to be giving that a shot. Love the tuna tina and oil idea! Very clever… Toads I hadn’t thought of… We have a local hawk that has staked out the area (found half a dead rabbit on the flagstones) and a snake in the yard along the fence line so I don’t know how long they would last (or if perhaps that is why I’ve never seen any toads before), but I’m willing to give it a shot.

    Thanks folks!

  36. So, matching the relative outrage level of the original article, we have 56 people outraged about the flavor of their tomatoes or concerned about fruit, countertops, their gardening hobby, vs. 2 who are more concerned that slavery has effectively been reinstituted in the US (and Spain.) That’s a bit depressing. Maybe I’m just not medicated enough.

    1. Clifton, the people who grow their own are diverting income from the people responsible for the exploitation of farmworkers. That’s not a depressing thing.

    2. Reinstituted? Slavery in some form has been a part of the U.S. economy since colonial times – it’s never left.

      I’ve yet to see the Happy Mutants fail to ‘get’ the dark underside of any subject opened for discussion on BB. The frivolity/amusement is often a deliberate balance for a highly intelligent, well-read group of commentors who are all too aware of what goes on in the world.

  37. I like that line near the beginning of Food, Inc.

    “Although it looks like a tomato, it is a notional tomato. It’s the idea of a tomato.”

  38. Many people don’t realize that you can bring a tomato plant inside in the fall, and it will keep producing tomatoes for months. Cherry tomatoes are particularly good for doing this.

    Anyone who buys a tomato from the supermarket is foolish. Tomato sauce, paste, and canned tomatoes are the way to get tomatoes in the winter.

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