Saturday, August 25, 2007

Breakers or better

The last time I ate a tomato from my own garden—until this past week, that is—was in 1993. After that, I wandered, apartment to apartment, in the desert of contract jobs for a decade before settling in 2004 in my current abode. But the landscaping here is mature and complex, and there was no obvious place to put in a garden. Well, after a few years of contemplating that puzzle, I found a way to incorporate half a dozen tomato plants this year. And now I am reminded once again why I don’t buy tomatoes in January.

But I am also reminded of the centrality of jargon to most fields of endeavor. In particular, the produce business has a language of its own.

One of the terms of art in the growing and selling of tomatoes is vine-ripe or vine-ripened. To the uninitiated, a vine-ripe tomato is one that has turned red on the vine and is therefore inherently better than one picked green and ripened artificially. For many years, at least in the eastern half of the United States, vine-ripe tomatoes came exclusively from Mexico, whereas Florida tomatoes were known to have been picked green and gassed. (This is an oversimplification, and I’ll be glad to add all the necessary qualifications and details if anyone is curious enough to post a question in the commments.) Nowadays, vine-ripe tomatoes are imported from a few countries. The flavor, though, is uneven.

Why?

Well, as I said, the above definition of vine-ripe is assumed to be correct by people—including lexicographers, by the way—who have never been in the produce business.

In the trade, though, vine-ripe has two different meanings. For greenhouse tomatoes, it means red. End of story. A vine-ripe greenhouse tomato is as good as a greenhouse tomato is ever going to get. For field-grown tomatoes, though, a “vine-ripe” tomato is one that is picked “breakers or better.”

I was surprised to find that Google could not come up with a single instance of the phrase in association with tomatoes (there will be just this one after I post this). And yet “breakers or better” has been the standard for many decades. There’s a good reason for this. A tomato picked as a breaker and allowed to ripen naturally, it turns out, matures with superior flavor to one picked red ripe. (This does not apply in the greenhouse, apparently.) From that point on, the tomato takes up water faster than it builds sugars and solids. So a tomato picked red ripe in the field ends up heavier but less tasty than if it had been picked earlier.

This is, of course, news to gardeners. So when I go to my local farmers’ market, where several organic gardeners have booths offering the heirloom tomato varieties they have come to put so much faith in, I find tomatoes picked too late and consequently scarred and lacking in flavor.

For myself, I’ll take a modern hybrid variety picked as a breaker over any of the heirlooms picked red ripe. If you’re a gardener, you either know I’m right or you just learned something that you can still test before fall comes.

Words matter. But knowing what they mean matters more.

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