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Jewish World Review June 26, 2001 / 5 Tamuz, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

The fruit of time -- HAS ever so much deliciousness arrived in so plain a container? A friend keeps leaving treasures for me in a plain brown wrapper. Or sometimes a plastic grocery bag. Paper or plastic, the contents are heavenly. He knows my not-so-secret weakness. For inside are what has becomes the common if unofficial currency of these latitudes as summer begins to lengthen: tomatoes.

They come in various hues in mid-June. Orange. Pink. Red. Reddening. Redder. Reddest. Slice 'em on one big plate and you'd have all the colors of the rainbow. This early in the summer, you can pick and choose: Which belong on the kitchen sill for another day, or another week, and which have to go into tonight's salad, or just between two slices of bread right now.

This week's batch is ripe, ruddy, aromatic, in shades from lipstick-red to dawn sunrise. They call to me through the plastic bag, promising a taste of heaven. But I know by experience that scent can be deceiving. Meanwhile, like the rest of Arkansas, and, if it only knew what good was, the rest of the Union, I await my first Bradley County Pink, which is to the world of tomatoes what Mokt is to champagne.

The man at the tomato market in Warren, Ark., says volume is low but quality high as the first fruits of the season begin to arrive. He's hopeful this year's crop will be better than last year's, which ran afoul of bugs. Thrips, I think he called them, unless he was just clearing his throat. The omens, I am happy to report, are good.

For size and smoothness, the Mountain Springs and Mountain Delights are looking good. I ask the man what his favorite variety is, knowing what the answer would be in Bradley County: the Bradley County Pink. For pastel color, for tenderness, for juicy flavor, they remain the prime eatin' tomato -- as opposed to the shippin' tomato. Like life itself, the Bradley County Pink is perishable, but a joy while it's here.

This year a few pinks even showed up in time for the annual tomato festival at Warren, which is unusual. It's not that the pinks were late, or could have any other flaw, but that the festival is always early. Some things can't be rushed. Like the mysterious process that produces the first perfect tomato of the season.

The scientists can now tell you every ingredient in the perfect tomato; they've broken it down element by element. They just can't make one in their laboratories, or even in such hospitable climes as Mexico, Florida or California. That's because Providence has reserved the perfect tomato for Bradley County, Ark., and immediate environs.

But more and more, even in South Arkansas, reds are being grown, not pinks. The demands of the market corrupt us all. The genuine, authentic vine-ripened tomato -- Accept No Substitutes! -- has come back into favor around the country. You can even buy them in the supermarket, with the vine ostentatiously left on as evidence of its bonafides. They show up in the gourmet section, or at your nearest fancy-foods store, aka Food For More. They taste better than the assembly-line product, but they're still not the same as homegrown. They're just a little too photogenic, a little too magazine-cover.

None can compare to the Bradley County Pink, which long ago lost market share to its synthetic archrival, a chemically implanted or genetically engineered simulacrum sold under the good name of tomato. In a terrible example of Gresham's Law, it has reduced the real thing to a rarity. Nowadays the uninjected, unmanipulated tomato stands out like a good girl in a high-necked dress at some kind of hip-hop dance; only the discerning may appreciate her.

To think, there are innocent children in this country who think that those boxed things in the supermarket -- the bright red hardballs -- are tomatoes. No wonder they aren't fond of tomatoes. They've never had the real thing.

In this modern age, some children have grown up on instant everything and think patience is the name of an old-fashioned card game. They never sat on a back porch under the ceiling fan while, one after another, the perfectly prepared products of a family garden were set down with a solid plunk on a wooden table: string beans, black-eyed peas, summer squash, okra, butter beans, chilled green onions, and yes, rich, red, juicy, real tomatoes. With fresh cornbread, of course. And cold buttermilk. For dessert, watermelon. And life is good.

Today the American consumer is fed neo-tomatoes packed in cellophane and tasting about the same. To confuse that assembly-line product with food is a fit punishment for impatience. Only the substitute's color -- which modern science has been able to induce artificially -- may be the same. Real tomatoes whisper allurements; these almost yell Mass Produced.

Time is the essence of tomatoes as it is of many other things. Writing and true love, for example. And it has taken time, centuries of it, for the love apple to win acceptance. It may now be grown in every state of the union except Alaska, but it was once regarded as a most suspicious character. Being a member of the same family as deadly nightshade, it was thought poisonous. A century ago, prudent Americans were advised to cook tomatoes for three hours before eating them -- to get rid of the ``poison.''

The Spaniards imported the tomato from the New World in the 15th Century. Then the Italians, after some refinements, re-imported the tomato to America in the 1920s. It was the Italians who began the custom of calling a luscious young woman a ``tomato.'' Such is the curious, revolving history of lycopersicon esculentum before it reached perfection under the cerulean skies of South Arkansas, where the spring days lengthen almost imperceptibly, and give the ripening process the proper gradualness.

As for those who think industrial science can duplicate such an environment by harvesting tomatoes in the tens of thousands by some arbitrary date on the calendar, and proceeding to run the poor things through 50-foot long chambers of ethylene gas, then soaking them in brine through which sulfur dioxide has bubbled for days in hopes of keeping them fresh ... .

Well, these poor, deluded souls, the products of a tasteless, colorless era, have no conception of the real tomato, the Platonic ideal. No wonder they might think nothing of slicing a tomato with a dull knife, or quartering it like an orange, or -- horrors -- putting a tomato in the refrigerator to ripen. Probably right next to a choice merlot. Instead of setting this juiciest of fruits down ever so gently on a windowsill. No true Arkie would ever sell a tomato before its time.

In these latitudes, the tomato -- like barbecue -- is a subject on which all have a decided opinion. But no amount of learned opinionation in praise of the tomato can compare to that first bite of the season. It's like the first sip of cold, cold beer on a warm night at the ballpark.

No words can capture the experience itself. The annual ritual in June becomes habit by July. To recapture the thrill, take one Bradley County Pink. Note the vivid color, the simple heft, the way it was made for the human hand. Do not delay, but do not hurry, either. Pause to appreciate the ripeness slowly achieved over the past few days. Don't forget to enjoy the scent -- with eyes closed. Breathe deeply. Then slice evenly, noting the fine texture. Be careful of the juice. No, don't taste yet. Barely sprinkle with just a little coarse salt, then make a tomato sandwich using two slices of brown bread and very little, just the lightest little hint, of unsalted butter, nothing more. Now. And you know what time itself tastes like.

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