90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Searching for the Perfect Tomato

Just in time for Memorial Day weekend planters, we’re on the hunt for the perfect tomato.

A piece of the cover image from "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato," by Arthur Allen, is shown. (AP)

If you love tomatoes, a great one is an event. 

The smell of the vine. The layers of aroma, firmness, color, flavor, satisfaction…joy. 

Arthur Allen has jumped on the search for the perfect tomato. 

He’s followed the roots back to ancient days, and into cannery, and farmer’s market, and the perfect patch of Baja and Campagna. 

The humble tomato has become a poster child for our battles over what is authentic, genuine, rich, edible. 

This weekend, you may be planting. Choosing. Dreaming of the harvest. 

This Hour, On Point: the hunt for the perfect tomato.


Arthur Allen, author of “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato.” You can read an excerpt. Allen is a former correspondent for the Associated Press. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, Smithsonian and Salon. He is also the author of “Vaccine: the Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver.”

J.J. Gonson, locavore chef with a background in short order and home cooking. She is founder of “Cuisine En Locale,” a personal chef service. Boston Magazine recently named her “Best Personal Chef” in Boston.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://john-s-allen.com John S. Allen

    So, at 7:50 AM I just heard Tom Ashbrook promote the program as follows: “Tomato and tomato and tomato…”

    “Tomato and tomato and tomato creeps in its puree paste from day to day…”?

    Please don’t throw any.

  • Dee Kieft

    The best tomatoes are in my back yard. I only fertilize with coffee grounds and tea bags and never use chemicals. They taste so sweet and I make tomato sauce for all my friends with the extra. All ingrediates but the wime from my garden.
    Sauce recipe:
    tomatoes-including skins, fresh basil, garlic cloves, bay leaf, honey and red wine-cook slow for 24 hours. really fantastic.
    if any tomatoes fall off early-fried green tomatoes!

  • pamela

    @ Dee Kieft – what type of tomatoes do you grow?

  • Elizabeth

    Look no further than New Jersey!!

  • Dee Kieft

    Pamela, I grow Romas and Cherry tomatoes. We eat the Cherry tomatoes like grapes. I do use Miracle Grow Moisture Soil and for drainage I put broken pottery or glass in the bottom of my pots. If you get bugs, mix up 3 drops of Dawn or any lemon dishwashing liquid & water in a old spray bottle and spray the plants. Works like a charm.

  • http://therapieboston.net Heleni Thayre

    Tomatoes are one of my passions – unfortunately now realized mostly in fantasy since it is nearly impossible to find a really good tomato in stores any more. Only the small grape and mini-tomatoes are sweet and juicy now – and that only half the time. I don’t have faith that even they will remain real and delicious with genetic compromises to increase shelf life and shipping hardiness marching forward.

    I have memories of incredible tomatoes raised by my neighbor 35 years ago. I would cut up 3 big ones in a dish a eat them with only a bit of salt. Ecstasy.


  • jeffe

    I just planted 12 plants. Mostly red and a few of the striped variety. There is nothing like picking a vine ripened tomato with some basil and slicing them up, pouring on a little Balsamic vinegar… heaven.

  • Mark

    Great show. I dont like uncooked tomatoes, thinking of a quote from George Carlin, “somethings just not done in there”. But, for cooking, its the San Marzano tomato. Nothing else comes close for a great Marinara

  • Shelley Butler Barlow

    I operate a CSA with about 40 different crops, but if I could only grow one thing it would be tomatoes. I have 21 different varieties this year – all sizes, shapes, colors, flavors – mostly heirlooms. Each type is better than the next. In fact, if I could only EAT one thing, it would be tomatoes! And my absolute favorite -Brandywines! I have blooms – can’t wait ’til July!

  • Melanie

    What about the tomato blight that struck so many gardens last summer? I’m beginning to give up on growing tomatoes …

  • Michael

    Why do the grocery store tomatoes taste so blend?

  • Dee Kieft

    A great summer dish.
    Pick a fresh tomato -cut in half, cover in garlic infussed olive oil-dash cayenne pepper and bake for 10-15 minutes on 350. Sheer heaven.
    I can grow year round, as I live in Fort Myers, FL. Another trick-plant peppers around or near your plants and it keeps the critters away-as does garlic.

  • David Wilds

    Love the show on tomatoes. I grow them, basil, & garlic in a small reaised garden out back. Lots eaten fresh but most go into sauce for the freezer. Ten lbs tomat’s seeded chopped-peeled, one bulb o’garlic chopped, & a fist full of basil is the start. Two hours later there’s 4 pt’s of sauce for the freezer. Come Feb, any cold winter day can be brightened w/a spicy red clam sauce over angel hair pasta.

    David, Portland Tenn

  • Jacey shumaker

    I started my love of tomatoes when I was 11. My first job was at a farm in Manchester ct.
    I would being a small salt shaker for lunch and pick a few fir my lunch. That was it. I have been in search ocvthe perfect backyard tomato ever since. Now in
    natick, ma, I built my garden before I finished unpacking my boxes, and sear by sungold orange, and heirloom. Lobster compost a must. Thus year added 8 upside down planters to compare. We will see. By the way, I planted two weeks ago, since the warmer weather has been with us.

  • chelsea

    As an organic farmworker who was hit hard last June with late blight, I’d like to hear you talk about the issues concerning raising tomatoes (and other veggies) and the effect of transporting plants across climates. I am told that blight has worsened as a result of homegrowers buying plants from big box stores and not local greenhouses.

  • Candace Hudgins

    Hampton, VA
    My husband and I devote half of our 25 X 25 garden to tomatoes. We especially love the Cherokee Purples. We use fish heads, egg shells, aspirin, etc. when planting. Found the recipe for planting on Love Apple Farms website.

  • TJ


    When my wife was in law school, I recall her studying a tort case that involved tomatoes that were grown to withstand a 5 mph impact without bruising. So here’s a solution for all those flavorless tomatoes! Since the Federal standard for auto bumpers is also 5 mph, why don’t those mass producers work with Detroit to put tomato boxes on every car? It would keep the flavorless fruit off of our grocery shelves and probably help reduce pollution to boot!

  • Julie

    For those of you in the Boston area, check out the Verrill Farm Corn and Tomato Festival in August:
    For a set price, you get to unlimited corn and tomato samples (usually 30 or more tomato varieties and 10 or so corn) and also tomato and corn dishes made in their kitchen. Great fun and a terrific way to try lots of varieties side by side.

  • Joan

    I have a little spot that gets full sun. Can I grow tomatoes in the same spot every year?

  • http://www.onpointradio.org Dywana Saunders-Confroy

    My parents shared a gardening space with a number of other railroad men in Victoria VA. At the very end my dad, Frank Saunders, gardened most of the space….close to the size of a football field. He grew many a tomato until 10 years ago when his health prevented it.

    My mother, Julia, canned the most incredible “maters” you have ever tasted. No fluid on top. We skinned and cored the tomatoes and canned them. She even won prizes at the state fair. Her tomatoes made for many a delicious soup and to this day I can’t make a Brunswick stew taste the same since my supply of these canned tomatoes are gone. I miss her wrapping up several jars with newspapers and sending them home with me.

    The best thing on earth is warm toasted bread with Duke’s mayo and one of my dad’s tomatoes! Oh, my few grown in my front yard will never taste the same.
    Thanks for the memories!

  • Robin

    The perfect tomato is one that was grown by my Grandfather, Ernest Walker, for over 40 years. He received the original seed from North Carolina in a brown packet titled # 84. These tomatoes ripen around the end of July through September are up to 2.5 lbs., rich and meaty with a little juice. One slice will cover a piece of bread, making the best tomato sandwich ever.
    I’m the only one with seeds of this tomato.

    Leipers Fork, TN

  • Mark Jaquith

    Hi JJ,
    Is anyone growing REALLY heirloom varieties that were grown before Euros got here? What are they like?

  • Willa

    I just missed calling in, but when I heard one of your guests talk about “the real costs” of food, I got really excited. I was quickly disappointed when it turned out all she meant was hybrid vs heirloom. What about the real costs of food that is harvested by migrant workers who are still, all these years after Cesar Chavez, mistreated beyond belief? What about the fact that these workers are sick and hungry because big commercial farms keep them in low-wage jobs with no benefits and no guarantees (so the workers never forget that if they complain, they will be swiftly replaced), and many migrant workers fall back on homeless shelters and other charities and social services? Is it really worth that so that the rest of us can avoid sticker shock in the supermarket?

    And then, of course, workers are exposed to high levels of pesticides, which harm both their health and the environment. Consumers are exposed to trace levels too, of course, but the brunt of it falls on those same migrant workers, who, of course, have no access to healthcare if they do get sick from these toxins.

    There has to be a better way. The real cost of our food is far too high; consumers need to stop being so complacent–food prices have been far too artificially low for far too long, and these externalized costs to migrant workers and to the environment just can’t be tolerated any longer.

  • Camille Napier Bernstein

    Adapted from Stephen’s Roasted Tomato Bread Pudding Recipe: http://www.stephencooks.com/2005/09/roasted_tomato__1.html

    Roasted Tomato Bread Pudding

    1 ½ c light cream
    2 ½ c oven-roasted tomatoes*, chopped (recipe below)
    2 eggs
    2 day-old baguettes, torn into ½-inch chunks
    4 roma tomatoes, sliced lengthwise (generous widths)
    1 medium onion, chopped
    1T butter
    5T basil, julienned
    1T dried oregano
    1/2 c Romano cheese
    salt & pepper
    olive oil

    1. Preheat oven to 350º.
    2. Sauté the onion in butter until translucent.
    3. Toss the tomato slices in 1T of olive oil.
    Beat the eggs gently with a fork and then combine with the cream, onions, roasted tomatoes and juice, garlic and 3/4 of the basil.
    4. Pour cream/tomato mixture over the bread, to cover the bread and combine, stirring to get most of the bread pieces wet. Allow pudding to sit for 20 minutes and pour into oiled Bundt pan. Bake about 45 minutes.
    5. After the first 20 minutes, sprinkle cheese over the top, lay the tomato slices in a decorative pattern and scatter on the rest of basil.
    6. You can broil the top of the pudding lightly for a minute to brown the top.
    7. Allow pudding to rest at least 15 minutes before serving. Even better the next day!

    * Oven-roasted tomatoes. Roma or paste tomatoes are best. Halve lengthwise and toss with olive oil. Place cut side down on cookie sheet (you can line with foil or parchment.) Sprinkle a variety of dried herbs (oregano, thyme) and salt and pepper. Roast on 225 for 2 hours, checking every 30 minutes. They are done when they are deep red and a tiny bit charred. And you just know by the rich smell!

  • Chris

    yum, tomatoes sandwiches with sourdough bread, skim of mayo & S&P. mmmmmmmmmmmmmm

    I only buy tomatoes plants from a local farm stand – last year when people lost their whole crop from blight, mine were perfect. Looking forward to another good year. Canning stewed and salsa again. Plus extras & heirlooms from my CSA (Farmer’s Dave’s in Dracut,Ma)Cannot stomach store-bought tomatoes, yuck!!!

  • http://www.gregongardening.com Greg Garnache

    What a wonderful topic to cover on the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend. I am looking forward to getting all
    of my tomato seedlings in the ground. This year, I am
    growing a couple of hybrid red tomatoes (Fantastic and
    Jetsonic), several heirloom tomatoes (Rose, Cherokee Purple, Japanese Black Treffel) a couple of cherry tomatoes (Matt’s Wild Cherry, Yellow pear) three specialty
    varieties(Sweet Tangerine, Green Zebra and Red Lightening)
    and San Marzano plum tomatoes. Last year we started doing tomato tastings for our friends and even had a tomato lover’s dinner offered as an auction item at our annual
    church auction. The tastings were very popular and gave me encouragement to experiment with more heirloom varieties. Best wishes to all of the gardeners out there who listened to the show this morning.
    Greg from West Newbury

  • http://www.cuisineenlocale.com JJ

    Hi everyone- thank you so much for joining in the tomato tittle!
    Willa, I absolutely DO mean the real cost of cheap food- as in when you cut every corner and use hybrid seeds specially designed to grow fast and overproduce you get a product that tastes like what it is: cheap.
    I am a strong supporter of paying more for better product whether it is hybrid or heritage or heirloom :-)
    Thanks so much for your comment! Please stay excited about REAL food, and happy almost tomato season!
    JJ Gonson

  • http://debbiehoffman07@yahoo.com Debbie Hoffman

    My summer treat is popping freshly picked cherry tomatoes into my mouth. It’s my candy.

  • John Ozols

    The best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted come from the “Black Dirt” region on the Western side of the Hudson Valley in Upstate NY. In my time at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in that area, I had the chance to sample many varieties, and every one was a mind-blowing culinary epiphany! It’s the terroir; words cannot describe how amazing they are…

  • http://onpointradio.org Jo Anna

    The tomato that changed my life was eaten when I was 11 yrs old. Previously, I only ate tomatoes in pizza sauce and on pasta. Then, we visited rural Maryland one summer and after listening to my father swoon over the garden tomato on his baloney sandwich that came from the neighbor’s garden I succumbed and tried it. I haven’t looked back! And I only buy them fresh in season – their just not worth eating until then!
    Jo Anna
    Green Bay

  • Ishmael

    Tomatoes are great. Years ago I learned that if a curry is in need of liquid, adding tomatoes is the way to go. Not tomato sauce, not paste, or juice: adding the real thing is perfecto.

    Chili. Pasta sauces.

    On a related note, is there anything more cardboard-y and insulting than a hothouse tomato?

  • Richard Levins

    1. The talk was all about the fruit, but there is nothing like the smell of tomato leaves growing in the sun.I grew vegetables in Puerto Rican coffee country, and the best part was working down in the tomasto canopy staking the plants and smelling leaves.
    2. Rain brings late blight because of the splash of the spores from the soil. I planted a cover crop of bush beans, then set out tomatoes two weeks later. This delayed the blight long enough to get a harvest.

  • Brett

    Tomatoes are in the nightshade family, along with certain varieties of peppers and, among others, including potatoes…tobacco. Interestingly, there are many poisonous plant varieties also in the family. Some old-timers say they’re not so good for arthritis…I agree, but I am also Italian, so whataya gonna do?

    Dee Kieft has the right idea, particularly if applied to using pots and growing tomatoes on a balcony, etc. I particularly liked her solution (no double entendre intended…okay, maybe a little, maybe the soap spray part) to bugs, both the garlic plantings and the mild soap spray.

    The tomatoes from the grocery are usually grown in green houses, often picked early (green), stored, irradiated, etc., so this renders them as something that tastes like cardboard dipped in bad salsa.

    Tomatoes in the garden like soil slightly acidic (which is why the plants respond to the coffee-ground treatment), should be staked as they come up; and, while sunlight and water are as important as soil, too much water/rain (in the early part of their growth in particular) can give rise to all sorts of maladies–various fungi being common–so they are not keen on a particularly wet spring. Start plants indoors (even in a cold frame, as long as its not too cold) to get them ready for planting outside in spring, way past any chance of evening temps dropping below 60 degrees fahrenheit. Grow plants from seed; but, if that isn’t possible, buy from local growers; don’t get young plants from big box stores. I recommend growing tomatoes later in the spring than one might think; this minimizes problems with blight before a decent harvest, etc., but everyone has his or her ideas about what works best, and it depends on one’s climate.

    Robin’s comment is enough to make a seed saver jealous!!!

    Tomato sandwich goals are an example of practicing delayed gratification when waiting for one’s harvest…

  • Willa

    JJ, thanks for your response, but I feel like we are talking past each other. Great-tasting food is a fabulous thing, and I absolutely pay more for it, but I also pay more because I’m more comfortable knowing the labor I’m implicitly paying for when I buy goods is labor that had a stable job and access to housing, healthcare, etc. In other words, the reason for paying more is the same as the reason for choosing the mom-and-pop hardware store over Wal-Mart EVEN IF the actual product you buy is the same. It’s just that in the case of tomatoes, the product isn’t actually the same, so there’s an additional selfish reason to do the right thing.

  • Lois

    This was my first time for your program – and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I will follow your programming, and pass the info on to several who will be interested.

    I’m not gardening just now, but it sure made me miss my experiences with the soil and plants of the past.

    Many thanks for a most enjoyable program.



  • Martin

    When so many many people are gearing up for the cookout season and meat, meat, meat; maybe a look at what goes on behind the scenes at some of these meat and dairy “farms” is in order…..


  • http://www.twogardeners.com Katie & Rob

    We grow heirloom tomatoes that have been in our family since the 1940s, and we can trace them back to the late 1800s. We have a big red beeksteak (which we have named a Stetson 84), a more mild pink beefsteak (which we have named the Granddad Mortgage Lifter) and a yellow red version of the mortgage lifter (which we have named the Granddad Yellow Red). Each tomato averages between 1 and 2 pounds. We save seeds from the best tomatoes on the healthiest plants each year and start those the next summer. We sell seedlings at the Marietta Square Farmers Market in Marietta, GA, and we are spreading our love of home gardening and delicious home grown tomatoes. The tomatoes we grow just may be the best around — at least that’s what our customers, family and friends say.

  • http://www.cuisinenenlocale.com JJ Gonson

    Willa, thank you so much for explaining, I see what you mean!

    In other news, and with a question; I planted some tomatoes upside down today, with their heads sticking out the bottom of a basket wall planter lined with Oregon moss.
    I am wondering if the dripping water is going to be a problem, vis a vis those aforementioned spores getting on the leaves?
    I am also wondering if anyone has any thoughts about what the moss might do to the soil vis a vis them plants?
    I welcome your thoughts, can’t wait!
    Thanks for listening! JJ

  • willy oceil

    How to download this podcast as a file ??

  • Brett

    Katie and Bob,
    I enjoyed visiting your website and hearing about some of the history of your tomatoes! Thanks! If I’m ever in Marietta, I’ll look you up at the farmers market!

  • Willa

    JJ, I have no idea about the moss, but I love the idea of upside down planters even though I have no need for them (I have plenty of room for a garden, though, shameful to state, I don’t actually have one). I think they satisfy the same part of me that loves triangular corner cabinets (even though they actually give you less storage for the same amount of wall space compared to a regular rectangular cabinet) and those planters with little side pockets all the way up so you can grow a whole herb garden in one pot (even though it’s easier to just grow a bunch of herbs in regular pots). It’s a sickness. :) Anyway, good luck with them!

    Willy, I think you may be able to go on iTunes and download the show.

  • RichK

    I’m enjoying this episode immensely. I have to say I’m a picky eater and while I love (non-chunky) tomato sauce, I can’t stand tomatoes. I think they’re slimy, icky, and just plain nasty. but I find it really interesting hearing the other side. I wish someone on the show could have spoken to the picky eaters that have issues with textures.

  • Bouji3

    Does anyone know anything about the Kumato? Is it a hybrid?

Sep 1, 2014
This Friday, Aug. 22, 2014 photo shows a mural in in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago dedicated to the history of the Pullman railcar company and the significance for its place in revolutionizing the railroad industry and its contributions to the African-American labor movement. (AP)

On Labor Day, we’ll check in on the American labor force, with labor activist Van Jones, and more.

Sep 1, 2014
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) recovers a fumble by Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson (3) in the second quarter of the NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP)

One outspoken fan’s reluctant manifesto against football, and the big push to reform the game.

Aug 29, 2014
Beyoncé performs at the 2014 MTV Music Video Awards on Sunday, August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Getty)

Sex, power and Beyoncé’s feminism. The message to young women.

Aug 29, 2014
Ukrainian forces guard a checkpoint in the town of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko called an emergency meeting of the nation's security council and canceled a foreign trip Thursday, declaring that "Russian forces have entered Ukraine," as concerns grew about the opening of a new front in the conflict.  (AP)

War moves over Syria, Ukraine. Burger King moves to Canada. Nine-year-olds and Uzis. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Our Week In The Web: August 29, 2014
Friday, Aug 29, 2014

On hypothetical questions, Beyoncé and the unending flow of social media.

More »
Drew Bledsoe Is Scoring Touchdowns (In The Vineyards)
Thursday, Aug 28, 2014

Football great — and vineyard owner — Drew Bledsoe talks wine, onions and the weird way they intersect sometimes in Walla Walla, Washington.

More »
Poutine Whoppers? Why Burger King Is Bailing Out For Canada
Tuesday, Aug 26, 2014

Why is Burger King buying a Canadian coffee and doughnut chain? (We’ll give you a hint: tax rates).

More »
1 Comment