The ‘Perfect Tomato’ Myth

Was one epic specimen really the world’s greatest, or a memory ripened by time?
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SummerGarden2_RevFinal

Illustration by Pushart

I confess: I’m tomato obsessed. My life is a constant search for the ideal balance of flavor and texture that makes a tomato perfect. I hunt for them at farmers markets and roadside stands, and I have even grown my own. For a while I gave up my quest to be an urban farmer, but that changed last summer while at the SoCo Farmers Market in Costa Mesa when I spotted a Sun Gold tomato plant.

This yellow-orange, cherry-sized variety famed for its deliciously sweet fruit, convinced me to give tomato growing one more chance. I took the four-inch pot home and planted the vine in my kitchen garden, which occupies the front planter of my Huntington Beach home, the only spot that gets full sun. The stalk looked spindly, like it would never muster the strength to reach the top of the tomato cage, so I didn’t have high hopes.

Yet the plant seemed to grow overnight, quickly escaping the top of the cage before cascading to the ground. From early June to late October it produced an abundant crop that tasted like candy. My husband ate them one after another, sometimes right off the vine.

Since I’ve never learned how to properly cut back tomatoes, I let them go wild. And like Jack’s beanstalk, the plant took over my sage, chives, and rosemary, but I willingly sacrificed my kitchen herbs for the delectable little Sun Golds.

By mid-summer the vines began to creep down the driveway, each week forcing us to park another foot away. And it just kept producing. I tossed the tomatoes into green salads, served them with a drizzle of olive oil, and made caprese salad and pasta with fresh tomatoes. I put them on pizza and sandwiches and gave them away. I invited a nature-loving friend to channel his inner Father Earth and pick all the tomatoes he wanted.

Yet I still had more.

That’s when I staged a dinner party and used the Sun Golds to make my husband’s favorite dish: pasta Bolognese. In the three decades I’ve been making this meaty tomato sauce, this was the first time the planets aligned in a harmonic convergence, which culminated in a batch of unequivocal, undeniable perfection. My guests raved. I felt both pride and a sense of doom, because no other Bolognese ever will be as good. This will be the Bolognese by which all others are judged— and believe me, they will be judged—and they will always come up short.

This brief encounter with perfection reminded me of another perplexing incident that happened in the summer of ’94, the summer I grew my first, my last, my only perfect beefsteak tomato.

My husband still talks of that ethereal red sphere, which has taken on mythic proportions. No other tomato will reach those Olympian heights. It was the tomato that launched a thousand BLTs. The Holy Grail of tomatoes. The unblemished skin gave up its juicy interior with almost no pressure from the knife, not like today’s genetically engineered seeds that are manipulated to create skins tough and thick enough to resist worms. Unfortunately, they also resist knives.

That perfect tomato tasted like the sweetness of long summer days, of sunshine, of fresh air, and just the right amount of rain. Its thick juicy slices made unequaled tomato sandwiches. And therein lies the problem. I’ve never been able to repeat that magical combination, that ideal sweet to- acid ratio. Since then every beefsteak tomato I’ve grown, no matter how good, is sadly lacking, always disappointing.

My husband often asks, “Why can’t we”— meaning me—“grow good tomatoes anymore?” I swear if I hear that one more time I’ll throw a rotten tomato at him. And that’s no idle threat, because I can grow those.

Still, I often wonder if that beefsteak was really as good as we remembered, or if over the years we’ve blown its perfection out of proportion, the memory of it better than the actual tomato.

And so I ask, “Are all of our memories improved by the context in which they’re made?” Was that tomato the best ever because it was a lovely, mild summer day and we ate it while relaxing on the patio with a light sea breeze cooling our faces? Did the sun and the blue sky embellish and elevate the experience, making a pretty good tomato taste sublime?

I wonder how many magical moments in life can’t be repeated because we can never again cobble together the same series of events. Was my Bolognese unequaled because of the laughter and genial company of my friends at the dinner party? Was that croissant I enjoyed at a beachside cafe really the best I’d ever eaten, or was my memory enhanced by the backdrop of the ocean and the butterfly that landed on my sugar bowl? Was that really the best cup of coffee, or was it improved by the aroma of roasting beans and my first-ever taste of the food of the gods: cheesecake?

I believe food memories, like good wine, get better with time. I also believe our best memories—not just of food—are formed by serendipitous blendings that, by their nature, can’t be repeated. They can only be savored, then live as pleasant reminders to open ourselves to creating new memories, to savor new combinations of experiences.

Those memories won’t be the same, but different doesn’t mean inferior. In fact, they might be perfect in ways we never imagined.

Try it!
Try Pam Tallman’s Bolognese recipe and other favorite tomato recipes. Also check out an annual tomato tasting Aug. 20 at Rogers Gardens. Go to rogersgardens.com for info.

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