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'Ripe': One Man's Quest For The Perfect Tomato

Jul 30, 2010 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Once upon a time, tomatoes were considered poisonous, even dangerous. But gradually, the plump produce made its way into our homes and onto our plates.

Arthur Allen tells the story of the tomato's redemption, popularization and eventual modification in his book, Ripe: The Search For The Perfect Tomato.

The tomato's versatility wore down its detractors bit by bit, Allen tells NPR's Jackie Lyden. "There's so many different ways that you can eat it," he says.

It first caught on with peasants in the Mediterranean, where it grows very well, and eventually the protests of doctors who considered it poisonous "gave way to good sense and taste."

Allen found tomatoes a rich subject for study, with a history full of stories and lore. "Anyone who cares about food usually has strong feelings about tomatoes," he says.

It's a familiar food, he explains. "The tomato's the original back garden summer edible that you remember from your grandmother's garden, or your own garden."

Additionally, tomatoes are a satisfying subject because of the changes in the tomato, and the way people are often dissatisfied with the tomatoes at the local grocery.

Consumers' interest in heirloom tomatoes and varieties in which taste trumps durability has changed the way producers think about what's on the vine. For decades, says Allen, larger commercial growers considered flavor an "afterthought."

Nowadays, tomatoes that taste better command higher prices.

Allen found his favorite tomato in California: the Speckled Peach. He brought the seeds back to the East Coast, and planted them. But the result was mediocre.

"We just realized it's something about California — the sun, the soil, whatever it is — and that's very characteristic of tomatoes. Certain types go in certain areas."

Nonetheless, Allen celebrates the appealing diversity in color and shape of homegrown tomatoes.

"Part of gardening is just the fun of it, and the aesthetics of it," he says. "And then we fool ourselves into thinking that these are wonderful tomatoes, when really," he says, laughing, "they're just average."

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Ripe: The Search For The Perfect Tomato
By Arthur Allen
Hardcover, 320 pages
Counterpoint
List price: $26
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