So Last Season: The End of Tasteless Tomatoes

Written by Kitt Healy on Monday, June 01, 2015 at 2:01 PM

Give a Madison chef a perfectly round bright red tomato, and she’ll thank you politely.  Give her a misshapen bright orange tomato, or a giant yellow one streaked with red, or one that’s the size of a ping pong ball and almost completely black, and you’ll see her eyes widen with excitement. At this point, you should probably prepare to be hugged. And then robbed of your remaining tomatoes.

Where uniformity is the goal for many conventional plant breeders, novelty is almost an obsession for the Chef-Farmer-Breeder (CFB) Collaborative at UW Madison.  Since 2014, this group has focused on strengthening the local food system in south-central Wisconsin by selecting and breeding varieties that fit the plates and palates of consumers buying directly from local organic farmers. Because the fruit is not expected to end up in the produce aisle of a chain supermarket, it doesn’t need to handle long haul trucking, ethylene-assisted ripening, or customers’ expectations for the humorless red round tomato.  This frees the members of the CFB collaborative to focus on a more unique aspect of their favorite fruit: flavor. 

As much as chefs love weird looking tomatoes, their flavor preferences are fairly traditional. Give a chef a tomato that looks like a pineapple and he’ll love it, but if it tastes like a pineapple he’ll likely hand it back. At an early meeting of the Collaborative, chefs discussed their incessant hunt for that classic “tomato-y” flavor; the balance of sweet and tang and savory, with a complex aroma that takes you instantly back to grandma’s a summer garden. 

The challenge facing the scientists of the CFB collaborative is to turn the poetry of taste into objective data. Every week of the summer, UW-Madison researchers deliver a box of fresh produce (predominantly tomatoes) to 5 participating chefs: Tory Miller, Dan Bonanno, Jonny Hunter, Eric Benedict and Anna Dickson. The chefs sometimes use these organic research vegetables in their latest dishes; but first, they have homework to do. Each crop species comes with a detailed sensory evaluation form that the chefs must fill out, scoring different elements of flavor like sweetness, acidity, earthiness, salinity, bitterness and savory flavor or umami.  In a separate column, chefs comment on which tomatoes they prefer, clueing researchers in on the most desirable flavor profiles.  

Humans have evaluated food using their senses for thousands of years.  But, as Lawless and Heyman note in their 2009 book on sensory evaluation: “Humans are tough measuring instruments to work with.” When measuring something as subjective as flavor, bias can occur in myriad ways. One taster’s perception of “sweet” may vary from another taster’s. One taster’s decision to call something a “favorite” may lead him to subconsciously tweak his flavor description. The order in which samples are tasted, the body language of other tasters, the temperature of the room, the labels on the food- all these factors can introduce bias.   

One way the researchers of the CFB collaborative control bias is by calibrating their instruments, ie. the chefs. When the first tomatoes are ripe, the chefs gather to taste the early fruits and to discuss, for example, which are high in acid, which are sweet, what salinity means for a tomato, and what an “off flavor” might taste like. The chefs leave this meeting ready to taste the season’s bounty in the temperature-controlled comfort of their own kitchens, so they are not influenced by others’ opinions. CFB researchers also control bias by giving all the varieties secret codes, encouraging tasters to clear their palates with water and crackers in between tasting and making sure chefs always receive tomatoes at peak ripeness. 

The CFB chefs are finely-tuned tasting machines. At the 2014 calibration meeting the researchers brought a beautiful full-color tomato that had been picked a few days earlier than the rest due to its weight. Tory Miller tasted it and immediately said, “This one wasn’t ripened on the vine.” Busted. Other words like: meaty, bright, grassy, deep, ocean-y, vine-y, happy and, of course, tomato-y, appeared in later evaluations, reminding the researchers that empirical science and culinary art are not all that intellectually distant.

Once all the evaluations are in, the CFB Collaborative researchers report back to the tomato breeders and farmers. The group favorites provide a template for future breeding work, and an immediate suggested variety list for local farmers selling at farmers markets, through CSAs and to restaurants. Perhaps more importantly, the relationships established through the CFB collaborative continue to evolve, bringing new tomatoes of all shapes, flavors, colors and poetic persuasions to the Madison market.   

Kitt Healy is a Masters student in Agroecology and Horticulture at UW Madison. Her research focuses on the fashion proclivities and mating habits of tomatoes.

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