By Kay Steiger
Scientific American has a series of stories on its website about food (this slideshow of a mushroom laboratory is really, uh, something), and this one about heirloom tomatoes was really interesting to me. For starters, from an evolutionary standpoint, tomatoes are kind of a mystery to scientists:
The cultivated tomato is a member of the nightshade family that includes New World crops such as eggplant, potato and chili pepper, which spread around the world after Christopher Columbus brought them back to Spain in the 15th century. But whereas scientists have uncovered a wealth of archaeological evidence—including microscopic starches on pottery shards that point to the taming of many crops from the Americas as far back as 10,000 years ago—the record is blank when it comes to the tomato.
It also goes on to say that heirloom tomatoes, often hailed as some of the best for cooking (there’s even an entire cookbook devoted to the subject), are also some of the least genetically diverse kinds of tomatoes out there. That’s not necessarily a good thing. The less diverse the tomato’s genes are, the more susceptible to “fungal infections that cause the fruit to crack, split and otherwise rot quickly.” I think I speak for everyone when I say, ew. Now scientists are busy trying to hybridize tomatoes with other species to make them genetically stronger.
This is all really interesting to me because I (probably like a lot of you) feel that while good tomatoes are really, really good, bad tomatoes make you want to die. I’ve always heard heirloom tomatoes are really the best, but I also had some cherry tomatoes the other week that were pretty good. And Ben Miller informs me that you should never, ever, under any circumstances refrigerate your tomatoes. Will heirloom tomatoes remain king for cooks?