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The Sad State of the Supermarket Strawberry

An oversized red strawberry is bigger than the bowl of the spoon it rests on. Photo by BF Newhall

One of the strawberries Jon brought home: bigger than the bowl of a teaspoon. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I’m worried about the strawberry. It’s too late for the tomato. Its innards were transformed into colorless, flavorless – but easily shippable – pulp decades ago. Which is why I’m concerned about the strawberry. Is it going the way of the tomato?

Jon brought home a plastic bin of them the other day. They were huge, almost as big as ping pong balls. Other than that, they looked just like strawberries.

I rinsed one off and took a bite – strawberry on the outside, but chewy, flavorless pulp on the inside. I could have been biting into an eggplant, a baked potato – a tomato.

Here’s a piece I wrote when I was a columnist at the Oakland Tribune. It’s an elegy to the old-fashioned tomato with its slippery, juicy core. Let’s hope I won’t have to write one for the strawberry.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, Sunday, July 5, 1987

Tomatoes. Remember tomatoes?

Decades ago, before scientists the University of California at Davis went to work on it, the tomato was a food one could serve without embarrassment.

It could hold its own sliced and served naked on a platter. It needed no adornment.

Tomatoes were juicy, tangy-sweet and had a bright, tomato-red color.

(Tomato red, for those of you too young to remember the original, is the color of the lipstick

Huge strawberries look like strawberries on the outside, but whitish and pulpy inside. Photo by BF Newhall

Just for the record — tell the grandchildren — strawberries used to be as red on the inside as they were on the outside. That goes for tomatoes, too. Photo by BF Newhall

Marilyn Monroe used to wear—back in the days when a luscious woman was also called a tomato.)

The worst thing you could say about the tomato back then was that if you put a slice of one on your plate, its juice tended to ooze its way over to your fried chicken, making it soggy.

But gone are the days of the tomato, animal and vegetable.

Todays’ tomato is pink, not red. It is thick-skinned and meaty. It does not ooze. It is as dry and gritty as a raw potato.

It was in the late ’60s that scientists at UC-Davis, where the national tomato gene pool resides, began to redesign the tomato.

They bred varieties with thick skins and meaty innards, tomatoes tough enough to withstand machine picking, transportation to market and a ride in a shopping cart underneath a can of tuna.

As a result, my children, who have 10 years of eating experience between them, have yet to sample their first bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches.

They know the difference between an enchilada and an egg roll. They are not flummoxed by an artichoke.’

But they have never set teeth to a BLT.

The whole point of the BLT, after all, is to contrast the crunchy saltiness of the bacon and the slippery, juicy sweetness of the tomato.

What would be the point of a bacon, lettuce and potato sandwich?

If the tomato has been on the decline around our house in recent years, so have scruples. This came to my attention a few weeks ago, when Jon mentioned he had bought stock in Calgene.

“Calgene is using genetic engineering on tomatoes,” said Jon. “They are trying to increase solids. They have a big contract with Campbell Soup. It might be very profitable.”

“Tomatoes!” I gasped. “You mean they’re going to do something else to tomatoes? And you

Five red, seemingly juicy, strawberries rest on a blue and whtie plate. Photo by BF Newhall

They look juicy enough on the outside. Photo by BF Newhall

gave them money?”

Jon has been married to me for 10 years. We had courted for six years before that. I thought he knew how I felt about tomatoes.

I also thought he had scruples. I married him for his scruples.

Was this not the very man who, a decade and a half ago, refused to pay 20 percent of his federal income taxes—the 20 percent he figured would be used to finance the Vietnam War?

Wasn’t this the man who railed against multinational corporations, who refused to take a straight job, to wear a suit?

We have softened up over the years. It’s true. Both of us.

I still pay my Sierra Club dues, but I ruthlessly throw away – unopened—fund-raising letters from the Save Mono Lake Committee.

As for Jon, he now owns several suits and keeps his hair close-cropped.

He shaved off his mustache six years ago, in order to make a good impression on our son Peter’s birth family the day we adopted him.

Jon has even written a computer program for that bank of banks, the Bank of America.

But I draw the line at the tomato. As I saw it, Jon was financing – with our hard-earned money—the final obliteration of the tomato.

He has shown more concern for the snail darter than the tomato. And he has never seen a snail darter, let alone had one on his plate.

I skimmed through the Paine-Webber report on Calgene.

Sure enough, the company had “developed a portfolio of genetically useful genes,” including two that would increase the “shelf life” and “processing thickness” of the tomato.

You can’t fool me. Shelf life and processing thickness are agronomese for pulpy.

I got on the phone with Dan Wagster, Calgene’s chief financial officer, up in Davis. Yes, it was true, he conceded, tomatoes today are “bred for shipping, not eating.”

That is because, when a traditional plant breeder selects for certain characteristics (firmness, for example), other genes (for flavor, perhaps) tend to get diluted.

But, not to worry, said Wagster. Using its new genetic engineering techniques, Calgene will some day produce a tomato that is thick-skinned and firm – but flavorful.

Sounds like an apple.

But, who knows, maybe they’re on to something up at Calgene. Maybe genetic engineering will be the salvation of the American tomato.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll plant my own.

Reprinted by Permission of the Oakland Tribune

Full disclosure: No way did I ever plant tomatoes. Nice thought, but who has time to grow their own food with a job, a husband, a house, a couple cats and two little kids to look after?

If you enjoyed this post, you might like “Confessions of a Carnivore: Why It’s OK to Eat Meat — Sorta,”  “The Windmills of Mason County — Blight or Art?”  or “Jane Johnstone Schoolcraft and the Indian I Wanted to Be.”

A strawberry the size of a tangerine purchased at the Safeway supermarket in California. Photo by BF Newhall

Look what arrived in our kitchen a week after I photographed the strawberry above — an even bigger strawberry, this one the size of a tangerine. Jon got it at Safeway supermarket. Photo by BF Newhall

A strawberry the size of a tangerine purchased at Safeway supermarket is yellowish and partly hollow inside. Photo by BF Newhall

This is what it looked like inside — fibrous and partly hollow. Photo by BF Newhall

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Comments

  1. When I first went to China a few years ago my roommate bought strawberries at the local corner fruit stand. I was like, these strawberries look awful. They’re tiny, pink, looking like they’ll go off any minute… Then I ate one, and damn, now I know why a lot of people say strawberries are their favorite fruit. Too bad most American strawberries are no longer tiny, pink, and looking like they’re about to go off. Because those are the good ones.

  2. Dee Myers says:

    Thank the Lord for farmer’s markets which I am sure you have many of in your area. There you will find small, red, ripe, juicy strawberries worth eating and heirloom tomatoes that have flavor and juice. I live in strawberry land, but the ones in the supermarket here so near to the fields are hard, white shouldered, and tasteless.

  3. Ann T. sent me the article on strawberries. I agree with you, I wrote about them last year. The article pointed out that last year they had good flavorful, ripe strawberries on the supermarket shelves. The kind I can buy in Maine during the season. This year, they have returned to their tasteless over-sized bombs

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      I don’t understand why bigger is better when it comes to strawberries. Some of them are so big I have to eat them like an apple, in bites. And since they are not all that juicy, I can do that without the juice dribbling down my chin, which is what would happen if you tried to take bites from a real strawberry.

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