You may already be a vegetarian, vegan, or pescetarian. But are you also a locavore? A “Locavore,” a term coined by author and locavore Jessica Prentice, is a person who primarily buys and eats locally produced food. Which geographic area locavores consider to be local varies from person to person and food store to food store, but local food will generally come from one community, state or region. New York City’s Greenmarkets, for example, provide produce from around the northeast. Supermarket chain Whole Foods defines local as having traveled for less than seven hours by truck. Manny Howard, author of My Empire of Dirt, turned his small Brooklyn backyard into a farm, from which he fed himself and his family for seven months. He called this experiment the locavore movement’s “logical conclusion.”
You may not be keen on setting up a farm in your yard, but there are benefits to buying locally grown food from catering stores or farmer’s markets. Buying from within your region supports community development and reduces the environmental impact of the transport of food. Produce that arrives on your table soon after it was picked contains more nutrients than food that was picked days (or weeks) before. At farmer’s markets, where prices are negotiable, you can often speak to the farmers themselves to ask what growing practices and pesticides they use, if any. But there are challenges to being a locavore.
If your nearby grocer does not sell local food, you may have to travel to a store or market too far to be convenient. You may be perplexed with what meals to make on a limited supply of regional and seasonal foods, or you may simply get bored. Then there are the occasional high prices – though in-season foods are generally cheaper than out-of-season foods, many suppliers of local produce buy from small farms that do not have the advantage of economies of scale. Even if all of these constraints apply to you, the one piece of produce you should never eat if it were shipped in from over one hundred miles away is the tomato.
Tomatoes are warm-weather crops that thrive in temperatures from 77 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Accordingly, California’s warm climate produces about 90% of the tomatoes grown in the US. If you don’t live near California, it is likely that any tomato you buy was shipped in from there, or Mexico, or even China. For these imported tomatoes to arrive at their destinations looking ripe – not overripe or rotten – they must be picked while still green and sprayed with ethylene, a gas that triggers a controlled, artificial ripening process.
They are then refrigerated on the shipping truck. Once they are refrigerated below 55 degrees (tomatoes are often shipped, with lettuce, at 37 degrees), ripening stops (along with the tomato’s production of its flavor enzyme) and water content expands, breaking down cell walls. So instead of having a red, firm, sweet tomato, you are likely to cut into a pinkish, soft, bland fruit. Do not be fooled by “vine-ripened” varieties at the grocery store – they were picked when only slightly less green but went through the same process as the off-the-vine heirlooms next to them.
A tomato is a fruit, botanically a berry. It should be sweet and somewhat juicy, but not messy. The moisture should be trapped in the tiny pores of firm, bright meat, not flowing from the cavities where the seeds are housed. A tomato needn’t be treated like a block of tofu that must be perfumed and flavored with other herbs and sauces. It only needs a bit of salt to bring out its notes. A tomato should be fragrant, even before it is cut – sweet, grassy, light.
The only way to experience the true delight of a tomato is to buy one that was locally grown and recently picked. If you walk past the tomato display in your supermarket and don’t smell anything, move on. The wait until summer to head to your nearest farmer’s market will be well worth it.