Monday, August 4, 2008

Sentinel Column August 8

Which is your favorite tomato? Yours may be different from mine, though I think we could all describe the qualities we’re looking for – the right texture, the right flavor, and the right combination of meatiness and juiciness. Opinion diverges though on what is “right”.

Our judges Saturday came up with the following “right” winners at the TomatoFest:

Best Red Tomato Dee Ogle, of Webb City, Missouri.

Best Other Color Tomato - Carole Palmer, of Fairhaven Berry Farms, Harwood, Missouri.

Best Small (cherry, grape) Tomato - Deanna Agee, from Fairview, Missouri.

The heaviest tomato weighed in at 1.63 lbs. and was grown by Deanna Agee of Fairview, Missouri. The smallest was the size of a marble and grown by Ava Smith of Reddings Mill. And the crowd selected Hector Troyer‘s of Stark City as the weirdest.

Our thanks go to Mike Pound, Chef Scott Teal, and Mike Shaffer for judging and to Granny Shaffer’s and the Richardson Law Office for underwriting the prizes.

Tomatoes have been in the news this summer with the salmonella outbreak. It looks like the FDA is finally coming close to identifying the source of the contamination. Unfortunately many commercial fresh tomato growers in the US who were completely innocent in the affair have suffered tremendous loss. I can’t help but think there is a better way to deal with a contamination outbreak and no doubt the FDA is working to improve their systems. Let’s just hope they concentrate on commercial production rather than creating broad regulations that put small farmers selling locally out of business. Tracking local sales shouldn’t take much of a paper trail.

Smithsonian magazine recently had an article on tomatoes. Among other things, it noted that big tomatoes are usually less flavorful than medium or small tomatoes because “you’ve maxed out the plant’s ability to produce sugars and other flavors.”

Jay Scott with the University of Florida is researching how to increase the flavor in the big tomatoes grown by Florida’s farmers. Florida is the largest US producer of tomatoes, most of which are “picked as hard and green as Granny Smith Apples, packed in boxes, warehoused and exposed to controlled doses of ethylene gas, a ripening agent, so they turn red just in time for sale.” That turning red may be the primary difference between a commercial tomato and a local one. “The flavor of tomatoes, Scott says, comes from sugars, acids and volatile chemicals. Photosynthesis generates sucrose, or table sugar, which is broken down into glucose and the sweeter fructose during ripening.” Ethylene gas turns the tomato red, but photosynthesis can only happen on the plant and in the sunlight.

But, of course, I’m preaching to the choir. Just know what you want when you visit the market because we have lots of choices – big tomatoes, medium and small ones, ones that have never seen a chemical, others that were regularly fertilized with a chemical-based fertilizer like Miracle Grow, hybrids, heirlooms, ugly, beautiful. You’ll find red, yellow, pink, even striped. Just ask the grower for details and sample around until you find a favorite variety – or two.

Lunch today is stuffed pepper, squash casserole, 4-bean salad, fruit fluff and a drink for $6. The Missouri Mountain Gang plays.

Tomorrow we have a home town group singing – Ninth Hour, four young men who specialize in gospel but will no doubt throw in some golden oldies. Matt Holt is their director and pianist. You may have seen them at the Forever Plaid performance at the Route 66 Theater. They’ll be singing between 9:30 and 11:30 and I guarantee you’ll enjoy hearing them.

Tuesday Joplin Little Theater puts on Cooking for a Cause and Rob Pommert will play guitar from 11 to 1.