The weeks that we bring fresh tomatoes to market, we generally sell out within the first hour.
Home-grown tomatoes are the favorite crop of the farmers market masses, the epitome of the late summer vegetable, the bright red beacon that lures even reluctant shoppers out of supermarkets to farm stands. They’re the common shorthand for what we’ve lost in our current food system. “There’s nothing like a home-grown tomato,” says each market customer as they pick up the summer-warm fruits and gently pile them in their bags to be taken home and sliced on salads, stacked into BLTs, or blended into salsas and marinaras.
But that big, beautiful pile of picturesquely gleaming tomatoes on our market stand? It’s a carefully cultivated lie. The farmer’s equivalent of an impeccable Instagram feed. A meticulous presentation of organization and beauty when, in reality, behind the scenes life is messy. A little bruised and squished. A little cracked and blemished, with seeds and pulp and imperfections scattered everywhere.
In an excessively good tomato year (which this was not) maybe 50% of the tomatoes we grow make the market stand. Customers like pretty produce and eye-catching displays. Supermarkets, with their perfectly uniform, visually-pleasing (albeit void of taste) vegetables, have led folks to (unconsciously) believe that all produce looks this way. We know this, because we experience it at the market. The prettiest produce sells first. People tell us they come to our stand because it catches their eye. Every week, multiple customers approach us and exclaim, “Your vegetables! They’re beautiful!” If something isn’t selling well, we find a way to make it more attractive, and suddenly it flies off the table.
But vegetables, especially tomatoes (yes, we know they’re a fruit, but roll with us, here…) aren’t perfect. Quite to the contrary, many heirloom tomatoes are naturally rather gnarly-looking, with uneven coloring, strange stripes, or odd shapes. Garden-fresh tomatoes don’t always ripen evenly. They swell and crack if they get too much water and burn if they get too much sun. They are prone to early blight, late blight, blossom end rot, and a whole slew of viruses.
Tomatoes are difficult. They are needy. And even with a lot of love and affection, time and attention, an impressive number of tomatoes come out as, well…
Other tomatoes don’t even try for perfect. They grow by their own rules, expanding into odd shapes on a whim and waving their freak flag with the unrestrained joy of the ever-unpredictable Mother Nature. And yet others wear their imperfections with a calm matter-of-factness. A bug bite here, a small crack there, a discolored patch here standing out like the tomato version of a birthmark.
But all of these misshapen and imperfect tomatoes have one thing in common: they’ve lived their lives. Naturally. They started as a seed. They were planted in soil. They got sunlight and rain, heat and wind. Bugs chewed on the plants. Storms snapped some branches. They took a beating, weathering hail multiple times.
Of course they’re not perfect. Of course they’ve got some battle scars.
But they’re damn tasty.
They fully serve the sole purpose of their short but glorious tomato lives: to make really amazing fruit.
And the real kicker in all of this tomato madness is not that they achieve their amazing fruit status in spite of their organically-grown, un-pampered upbringing. They achieve their amazing taste because of it. They’re not grown in climate-controlled hothouses. They’re not bred to be uniformly perfect. They’re not harvested while still green so they can be transported without bruises to cushy warehouses where they get a forced ripening via ethalyene gas.
These are hard-livin’ tomatoes.
And that hard-livin’ gives them the character everyone wants. Taste, flavor, spunk.
Our selection of only the prettiest and the finest to present on the farmers market table is about as real life as Reality T.V. Every glamorous market tomato is outnumbered by dozens with imperfections.
Yet all those imperfect tomatoes taste just as good as the perfect ones. Sometimes, even better. Because it’s not the looks that create the flavor. It’s the genetics. It’s the soil, the care, the resilience, the weather. Those imperfect tomatoes may come from good stock and have passed through just the right stressors to give them perfect flavor.
They’re just not showy about it.
And that is what makes up a bin of tomatoes. A few really glamorous ones. A lot of slightly imperfect ones. A few truly gnarly specimens.
But in the end, not a single one is a waste. The pretty ones hit the stand. The imperfect ones, our kitchen. The gnarliest ones, a stockpot for marinara. Even the scraps go to the chickens. Each tomato has a purpose, and each purpose is just as important as the next.
Just like us.
We are all tomatoes.
So rock your imperfections, my fellow tomatoes. You are your own heirloom variety growing in your own little micro-climate.
And nobody else in this great garden has your flavor.