American Beat: Rotten Tomatoes

There is no tomato crisis. Yes, you may have heard news stories recently about how the hurricanes in Florida and the torrential fall rains in California decimated the tomato crop, causing shortages and massive price increases. You may have even heard that many fast-food chains told their customers that if they wanted a slice of red on their burger, they needed to specifically ask for it.

You may have even been to your local Mexican restaurant and been charged-- horrors!--for the salsa that accompanied the chips. And you may have been driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike and stopped at a Roy Rogers in Sturbridge only to find that tomatoes had been taking off the "Fixin's Bar." If one or several of these tragedies have befallen you, you might have been inclined to think, hmm, there must be some kind of a tomato crisis going on.

But there is no tomato crisis. The tomato crisis is you. You want to know what your problem is? You expect to have tomatoes all year round. In fact, you've become so accustomed to having a slice of tomato on your burger whether it's mid-August or mid-January that restaurants have become slaves to your impossible demand, unable to remove tomatoes from the menu even if Mother Nature issues a series of decrees named Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. You live by the motto, "Have it your way," not "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

And because the restaurants must not only have tomatoes all year round, but tomatoes that taste the same all year round, tomato farmers aren't really growing tomatoes anymore, but hard green orbs that are picked a month early, kept in coolers for a few weeks, and "ripened" with ethylene gas. And no matter how bad these "slicing tomatoes" are, you keep buying them, further emboldening the mass producers of lousy tomatoes to keep producing lousy tomatoes en masse.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you live your life the way I do. I'm obsessed with eating seasonal produce in its actual season. As such, I simply don't eat tomatoes between the months of October and May. And don't get me started on peaches. I eat peaches one, or perhaps two, months per year. And during those 30 or 60 days, my life is a disgusting orgy of peach-eating, with bits of fuzz flying all over the kitchen and juice all over my shirt. And when it's over, it takes 10 months before I'll even look at a peach. So don't be me. I'm nuts. But all I am asking is that when life throws you lemons, you don't try to make gazpacho.

I became haunted with the obviously quaint notion that fruits and vegetables are seasonal products a decade ago, when I met Lucky Lee, a woman who has spent her entire life ensuring that you get to not only eat a tomato all year round, but that the tomato will be an actual tomato, not a hard green ethylene gas ball.

I met Lee--who owns Lucky's Real Tomatoes--when I was doing a story about a national survey which claimed that 80 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the quality of tomatoes, yet a majority were unwilling to live without them for most of the year (prompting the slogan, "Tomatoes: Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them, Can't Make a Salad With Them").

Lee's solution has been to drive huge trucks down to Florida to buy ripe tomatoes directly from small growers and drive the tomatoes back to New York City the next day. The result is as good a tomato as possible, so it's no surprise that Lucky's Real Tomatoes are served in the city's best restaurants.

But even Lee told her clients to take tomatoes off the menu when the so-called Tomato Crisis began.

"None of them would listen, though," Lee said. She even told me how The Palm Steakhouse chain--known for its beefsteak tomato salad, among other things that start with the letters b-e-e-f--paid close to $6 a pound for Lucky tomatoes during the height of the "crisis" rather than take the beefsteak salad off the menu. (To its credit, The Palm did not raise the price of the salad.)

And at the low end of the food chain, Wendy's refused to take the tomatoes off their hamburgers--but did briefly require customers to say they wanted the tomato slice or else risk not getting one at all. I rushed over to a Wendy's location the minute I heard and I ordered two Classic Singles--one with tomato, one without--each costing $2.89. I realize the dollar is falling all over the world, but by what definition of "affordable" is this thin patty, piece of brownish lettuce rib, and, yes, tasteless tomato, reasonably priced?

Given my antipathy towards these mealy, off-season tomatoes, I figured there'd be no difference between the burger with the tomato and the burger without. But I was wrong. Without the tomato, a Wendy's hamburger is a dry meat matzoh, the kind of patty I'd expect to find served at a prison lunchroom (wanna sue me, Wendy's? Make my day). With the tomato, at least there's some mushiness to counter the wafer-thin fat crust that is striving to impersonate a hamburger. But the taste is so vaguely tomato-y that you wonder why the fast-food chains don't merely use a cucumber, a sweet onion or a tomato-juice-soaked sponge to get the same effect.

After downing parts of two Classic Singles, I finally figured out the good news of this whole "tomato crisis": It delayed the unveiling of Wendy's Chicken Temptation sandwich, which, the company said, features lots of tomato.

If it takes a series of hurricanes to foil Wendy's, here's one atheist who is hoping for a few more acts of God.