Sunday, August 23, 2009

In praise of ugly fruit

Why can't you get a decent tomato at a supermarket? People complain that you can't get a decent tomato in January, but I have little sympathy for that. It's january, people! Tomatoes in January have to travel all the way from the antarctic.  What I am talking about is why you can't get a decent tomato in August.

Sure there are those crazy "vine-ripened" tomatoes where they leave little pieces of the vine still attached as some sort of evidence that this thing came from a plant. But do we need to pay those prices?  And even the best "vine-ripened" tomato can't compete with a backyard tomato in august.

This time of year, the supermarkets should be over-brimming with piles of juicy, red, locally grown tomatoes.  But last night, when I ran out of my local tomatoes from Vic's and was forced to send one of my boys to S-way to buy tomatoes, he returned with wooden, pale and completely juice-less fruit.

When I was a boy, my father returned from a trip to africa with a big roll of Guava fruit leather.  Much to the dismay of my family, I think I ate the whole roll. I couldn't get enough of that sweet, almost floral, gauva goodness. Until recently, I had never tasted a fresh guava. On my first trip to Mexico, we stayed at an all inclusive resort. On the buffet everyday they had a wide selection of beautiful fruit, mangoes, papayas, pineapples, melons and little green round fruit.   I asked what these fruit were and was told they were guavas.  I was so excited. Finally, twenty five years after my first guava experience, I was going to try the real thing. "blah". These little green fruit were completely bland. None of those unctuous, floral, tropical fruity flavours I remembered. I was utterly disapointed. Crushed. A precious childhood memory dashed upon the rocks.  It was like discovering that Santa Claus was a lie.

The next year I returned to mexico and stayed in the old part of town. There was a little hole in the wall grocer just down the hill from our condo. Clearly this store catered strictly to locals.  There was a big basket of ugly yellow fruit covered in brown spots. But the aroma grabbed me. It brought back a flood of childhood memories? Are these guava? I asked. "si senor". Is this how you are supposed to eat them? I asked. She had no idea what i was saying. Eventually between my three spanish words and her 3 english words we determined that these guava were perfectly ripe. I bought a big bag, took them back, and ate. All my guava dreams were realised. All those flavours I remembered came flooding back. Joy. Bliss. A revelation came to me in the shape of ugly fruit.

The all-inclusive resort had to appeal to North American sensitivities. The fruit had to be firm, green and blemish-free. That is how we like to buy our produce north of the Mason-Dixon. We don't want mishapen fruit, we reject squishy tomatoes, and we would rather buy green bananas than bananas with brown spots on them. But when buying food, what is more important, the look or the taste?

For decades, through careful breeding, (I am not even talking about GMO stuff) we have been developing produce that meets the requirements of a mass, supermarket audience. Fruits and vegetables are deveoped for colour, consistency of size and shape, and for shelf life. Taste never enters into the equation. As a result, we have bins full of perfect tomatoes with no flavour.

Another problem is that our produce, especially tomatoes and tree fruit, is all picked to early. Fruit is harvested under-ripe and then allowed to ripen in warehouses. Food service distributors don't even talk about ripening, but use the term staging: "ship stage 3 tomatoes".  And the fruit gets put on the supermarket shelves still under ripe. Pears aren't really tasty until they are soft, yellow and starting to go brown. But the produce manager wants to sell them bright green and rock hard.  When his pears go yellow, he throws them out. And because we buy groceries in large carloads to last us a week or more, we want to buy the fruit underipe, so it can sit in our fridges without going bad. 

The solution is to stop shipping tomatoes so far. The stores should be buying them from the closest place they can procure them. Then they can buy them ripe. We the consumer should shop daily, go to small markets instead of doing the big supermarket shop. 

And we should start demanding ugly fruit.

a song by guy clark:
Ain't nothin' in the world that I like better
Than bacon & lettuce & homegrown tomatoes
Up in the mornin' out in the garden

Get you a ripe one don't get a hard one
Plant `em in the spring eat `em in the summer
All winter with out `em's a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin' & diggin'
Everytime I go out & pick me a big one

Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love & homegrown tomatoes

You can go out to eat & that's for sure
But it's nothin' a homegrown tomato won't cure
Put `em in a salad, put `em in a stew
You can make your very own tomato juice
Eat `em with egss, eat `em with gravy
Eat `em with beans, pinto or navy
Put `em on the site put `em in the middle
Put a homegrown tomato on a hotcake griddle

If I's to change this life I lead
I'd be Johnny Tomato Seed
`Cause I know what this country needs
Homegrown tomatoes in every yard you see
When I die don't bury me
In a box in a cemetary
Out in the garden would be much better

then I could be pushin' up homegrown tomatoes


  1. I just ate an "ugly fruit" for the first time and loved it!

  2. There are two types of ugly fruit:
    1)ugli fruit which is a type citrus fruit native to jamaica related to a grapefruit. I have never tried one, but the zest is supposed to be particularly fragrant. (
    2) ugly fruit, fruit or vegetables that is do not conform to accepted standards as normal or attractive. Standards which have nothing to do with flavour. Check out this Times article: (

  3. Check out this interesting article on heirloom tomatoes. An ingredient we chefs and gardeners love.

  4. I was part of a party of three dining at your restaurant approx 6 months ago. After rereading your glorified Web promo remarks, I am forced to tell you how unimpressed I am with the expensive dinner I endured. I ordered the sea scallop & shrimp kebob, which I do not see on your current menu. Not only was it an awful representation of shellfish gastronomique, but the shrimps/prawns had been overgrilled with the shells on (could not peel the shells off)and I told the server. She quickly produced a finger bowl and said that should solve the problem. We were speechless. Our little group eats out constantly and I must say that we are thoroughly dissatisfied with your food and staff training.

  5. Mark,
    I am sorry that you have had to hold on to this upsetting experience for 6 months. It would have been easier if you had spoken to me about your concerns the night you were in. Failing that, a call or an email the next day would have worked as well. I would have loved to had the opportunity to apologize to you in person instead of reading this comment that you posted on my blog for all the world to see. Had I been given the opportunity, I could have rectified the problem and somehow made it up to you.
    That being said, the dish in question would usually get rave reviews, but we all make mistakes. There is that nice moment when the grilled seafood is seared and has a little char but the meat is juicy and tender. But sometimes, when we are in the heat of it, we leave it on too long, no one catches it, and it gets served. As for the shells, we leave them on because they add so much to the flavour, Usually the meat comes out beautifully. I am guessing your server just didn't understand what you needed. Sorry about that.

    As for my "glorified web promo remarks", I don't see my blog as a promo at all. I write, because i enjoy writing. My blog does not exist as a marketing vehicle. My blog is just another way I can connect with my friends and customers.

    So, my free advice to you and all those out there who eat in restaurants: If you have a problem with your food or service, tell your server right away, If that doesn't work talk to the manager, chef or owner right away. We want to know. Most restaurants want their customers to be happy. If there is a problem, we want the opportunity to fix it. If for some reason you feel too shy or don't want to cause trouble, then call or email us the next day. Then we can address your concern, and fix the problem going forward.

    Thank you for your comments.