A very long time ago (2015), our old buddy Tom Scocca posited, convincingly, that there are eight distinct seasons. This part of the year, from August through mid-September, he calls “Yellow Summer,” and ranks as the fifth-best season, which seems fine. After all, it’s muggy and buzzy and gross outside; the air is like glycerine and the trees have that overstuffed, saggy, worn-out dark green look they get right before their colors change; beach season has peaked and passed, and summer is in steep decline. It’s a time of year designed to trick you into thinking you’re glad when Colorful Fall arrives. But also, Yellow Summer is the host season of Tomato Time.
That’s right, pals, it’s Tomato Time!!! Right now, right now, tomatoes are as good as they ever will get: slightly past their peak visual loveliness, bursting out of their skins up by the stem. Right now they are ripe all the way through: No hard green core, no mealy pink flesh, just that indecent luscious red all the way down, red in color and red in texture and red in flavor, red red red, and downright gory with juice and seeds; you feel like you could get arrested for eating one in public. Right now, even if you aren’t within practical distance of a farm stand, you can get vine-ripened, never-refrigerated, locally grown tomatoes—the only worthwhile kind, tomatoes that have never crossed a state or county border in their lives. You can even find them at many generic big-box grocery stores and supermarkets, in just about any part of the country I give a crap about.
This is no small thing, pals! Because there never aren’t tomatoes—shitty, mealy, ripened-in-a-refrigerator-truck-on-the-drive-from-a-greenhouse-in-Canada tomatoes, even in midwinter—a person might plausibly forget that tomatoes aren’t actually just the dismal pink shit heaped up between a grocery shopper and the produce with actual flavor and character. You might forget, that is to say, both that tomatoes have a time, and that during their time tomatoes are as good a thing as this planet ever has created. I’m not really into tomatoes is a thing you could think, even though that’s, objectively speaking, a bottom-five thought, right above let’s nuke the ocean.
You’re into tomatoes! Everyone is into tomatoes! Being into tomatoes is synonymous with being human. You just forgot. Winter and capitalism—with all their mealy factory ‘maters—drove this ancient knowledge out of you. It is your duty as a human being and a lover of things that are good to seize this Tomato Time, to find and devour as many good, fresh, ripe local tomatoes as you can before Tomato Time peters out over the next few weeks.
I am here to help you with that, both in the sense that I will admonish you to select and eat tomatoes in the ways that I like to select and eat them, and in the sense that if you have any extra tomatoes laying around, I will help eat them (by grabbing them and running away before you can stop me).
The first thing to know, of course, is how to judge a good tomato from a bad one. To start with, at the supermarket or urban greenmarket, the tomatoes usually have stickers on them that tell you where they’re from. (Farm stands usually will not, since all the tomatoes came from whatever farm runs the farm stand, and stickers would be redundant.) Is this tomato a Product Of Canada? Then it sucks. Nothing against Canada, it’s a fine nation with presumably many fine tomatoes in it, but even in Canada the good tomatoes have more specific things to say than “Product Of Canada” on their stickers, because Canada is a huge country—Earth’s second biggest, by land area!—and “this tomato came from the entire nation of Canada” doesn’t really mean anything.
The basic principle is that good tomatoes come from nearby, so that they can ripen nearly all the way before being picked and will not have to be refrigerated at any point before you cram literally all of them between your gnashing, slavering jaws. Early harvesting robs ‘maters of the chance to develop flavor; refrigeration turns them mealy on the inside. This is why tomatoes are trash for 10 months out of the year, and why even at peak Tomato Time most supermarket tomatoes are still trash. The best possible tomato just now got plucked from outside in the garden and will still be warm from the sun when you eat it; the worst possible tomato got picked while it was hard and green, and turned mealy and gross while riding hundreds of miles in the back of a refrigerated truck on its way from Canada.
Around my neck of the woods, the supermarket has literally hundreds of shitty trucked-in tomatoes from Canada and Michigan and Ohio on display in the produce section year-round, to accommodate the dozens and dozens of suckers who will waste their money on these sad pieces of shit every day. They’re moderately pretty looking, their skins are unblemished, and they are utterly without flavor or value. Like anywhere else, though, the good tomatoes, around here, come from... well, around here. Their stickers do not list a country; they do not say they are a “Product Of [State]”; their stickers list a town. Or even a farm. They were harvested when they were ripe, and they do not have time to be sold to far-off people who will go, “Oh, [State], I know where that is.”
That’s true pretty much everywhere, at least during Tomato Time. Do you live in The Big City? That’s okay! Somewhere in the near outskirts of that city—or even inside of it, who knows?—there is somebody growing tomatoes in the spring and harvesting them in the back end of summer. You do not have to settle for “Product Of Far-Off Place” tomatoes. You can find local ones. Or, because it could not possibly be worse than a place that has no local tomatoes even during Tomato Time, you can go to hell!
Learning where these dang ‘maters came from is only the first part, though. The next part is lifting the tomato to your nose—go ahead, put your nose right on that sucker—and taking a nice big whiff of it. A good tomato has a vivid, unmistakable, mouth-watering tomato smell. If you find yourself kind of hunting around with your nose and mind to assemble and interpret the smell—Oh, I think this is maybe a good tomato smell? I think I can smell it!—then you are holding a bad tomato. A good tomato will make you go Holy shit I must eat this tomato right now as soon as you take one good sniff of it.
Don’t worry if you have never sniffed a tomato before; you do not need prior knowledge of tomato smell to recognize the smell of a good tomato. The main thing is, it has a smell, instantly and unmistakably. Truck-ass crap-ass tomatoes don’t.
Next, look at the tomato. Does it look, uh, not super photogenic? That’s fine, so long as it’s not smashed or oozing a lot of juice all over the place. Ripe tomatoes often split their skin right before they’re harvested, so some cracks are to be expected in the very tastiest of specimens. In any event, what makes a good tomato is not what it looks like, and many insanely delicious tomatoes with unbroken skin nevertheless are shaped like mutant tumors from hell. The reason to look at the tomato is only to assess whether it’s a shape that will work for what you want to use it for. Many spectacular heirloom tomatoes, for example, are misshapen weirdos with the hard stem part buried way down in the middle of the thing; if you’re looking for a tomato to cut into slices, for like a sandwich or to stash on a burger, that’s probably not going to work. That heirloom tomato will be great for wedges or chunks or whatever! It’s just not a sandwich ‘mater, is all.
If you’re holding a bigger cultivar of tomato—beefsteak, celebrity, better boy, whatever, if it fits in your palm like a non-ping-pong sports ball, is what I’m saying—you can give it a lil’ squeeze, if you want. A ripe tomato will give a little; it will not be hard, but it won’t be mushy either. It will be slightly plumper than a ripe peach. Truthfully, the squeeze is a nice thing to do, as a way of weeding out the rare good tomato that has gone uneaten long enough to tip over into mushiness, and to distinguish between tomatoes you can eat right now and tomatoes that will be at their best tomorrow, but it’s not necessary. You’d rather buy a slightly more firm but nevertheless good-smelling local tomato and give it a day on the windowsill than buy a fully ripe truck-ass Product Of Canada tomato with only a faint smell and no flavor.
Do I need to buy organic tomatoes, oh god, I do, don’t I, they’re like 20 bucks an ounce or whatever, you may be screaming. But no, you don’t need organic tomatoes, and in fact many of them are straight-up garbage. In my local supermarket, for example, I can find many “organic” tomatoes that nevertheless have been trucked to my neck of the woods from friggin’ Michigan. They may have been grown using organic farming techniques, but they taste like wet cardboard because they were harvested too early (in order to get them halfway across the country before they rot), they’re mealy because they traveled many hundreds of miles by refrigerated truck, and the fossil-fuel usage required by that journey makes a complete, insulting joke out of the notion that there’s anything particularly environment-conscious about how they came to where I can buy them.
If you have a choice between local non-organic tomatoes and local organic tomatoes, maybe get the organic ones? I guess? I still say get whichever ones smell better. If that happens to be the organic ones, that will be because “organic” is a proxy for “well cared-for.”
A Smattering Of Tomato-Eating Methods I Hereby Order You To Perform, So That This Blog Will Contain More Than My Ranting About Poor Canadian Tomatoes, Which Never Asked For It
It’s always good, during Tomato Time, to just pick up virtually any ripe tomato and just eat it straight out of your hand, assuming you have paid for the tomato and aren’t just stealing it. Cherry, grape, beefsteak, celebrity, whatever (probably not Roma*): House that fucker! It will be glorious. Eat cherry or grape tomatoes out of a bowl, like, uh, cherries or grapes. Lift a big gorgeous beefsteak ‘mater up to your face and chomp right into that beaut like it is a peach. Stare around at your neighbors in the pew, haughty and defiant, with tomato juice dripping off your chin. You are living now, my friend. What a memory this will make, in the loony bin!
*The reason not to just eat Roma tomatoes right out of your hand is not that doing so would be in any way unpleasant, but rather that this is a waste of a Roma tomato. Roma tomatoes are for cooking; they break down readily into a thick and splendid sauce, and this is their highest and only true calling. The rest of the year, if you are smart and not a bozo, you make your tomato sauce(s) with canned (Roma) tomatoes; during Tomato Time and only during Tomato Time, you can make your tomato sauce with fresh Roma tomatoes. Give them a brief bath (30-45 seconds) in energetically boiling water, then dunk them in ice water for five minutes, then peel their skins off, and then crush them—by hand!—straight into your pot of cooking aromatics and wine and such. Simmer them briefly for a bright pinkish color and chunky texture; this is marinara. Simmer them for a long time for a deep blood-red color and smooth texture; this is pomodoro.
If you would rather not just chow down on a beefsteak tomato like it is a very red peach, I suggest big thick slices of tomato with nothing but salt, pepper, and a faint drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil on them, eaten with a fork and knife, the way you would eat, say a steak. I like a Caprese salad—sliced tomato with fresh mozzarella, basil, and olive oil—probably a lot more than the average person, enough that it’s weird , but the hard truth is that when you have a perfect big tomato, anything more than salt, pepper, and just the littlest drizzle of a fragrant olive oil will seem silly and superfluous; you’ll find yourself disassembling the lil’ salad to pick out and eat the tomato as unencumbered as you can get it, and then coming back for the other stuff. Which is fine! In fact, I recommend it. Eat some big slices of tomato, by themselves, and then eat some more, but with mozzarella with fresh basil leaves.
Before summer ends, make and eat a simple tomato sandwich. Big round tomatoes for this: Beefsteaks, ideally, but any nice round tomato you can cut into slices will do fine. You want an unobtrusive, soft sandwich bread for this, white or whole wheat or even the kind with seeds and (figurative) shit in it, so long as it’s not chewy; if you have to saw away at it with your canines to break off a bite, the tomato will squeeze out the far side, and anyway the tomato, not the bread, is the star here. Toast it very lightly or don’t toast it, as suits your preferences and the immediacy of your tomato-sandwich needs. Between two slices of bread go as many slices of tomato as you can cram in there, dressed with nothing but salt and cracked black pepper. The ideal tomato sandwich has a thin spread of mayonnaise on both slices of bread, but my understanding is that many people are quavering cowards who fear mayo, and if they can’t be persuaded to try adulthood, they still ought to be permitted to eat tomato sandwiches, probably.
The tomato sandwich truly is a perfect food. Done right, with the other stuff—the bread, mayo, salt, and pepper—deployed in moderation, its function is mainly as a way to enable you to take huge, immodest, mouth-filling bites of juicy, fresh tomato, flattered just so. The mayo adds some creamy richness, the salt and pepper enhance the flavor, and the bread holds the whole thing together; you take a bite and your palate roars to ecstatic life and it’s all you ever want to eat, ever again.
You should have seen the Slack fit Drew and Lauren, Deadspin’s resident upper-Midwestern maximalists, pitched at the idea of this when it came up a couple weeks ago. Their huffy bafflement at the idea that anyone would ever eat a food containing fewer than two varieties of canned soup. Whu-huh? A sandwich with just tomato on it? You don’t even put any corn dogs in there? To me, that’s preposterous. At one point Drew chided the tomato sandwich for not being “ambitious” enough. Imagine thinking any level of ambition could improve a perfect tomato sandwich. Holy God.
(But, yeah, a BLT would also be nice. Not better than a regular tomato sandwich! But BLTs are fine. I like to stash some avocado in there, too.)
Are your big tomatoes not the right shape for slicing? That’s fine. Cut them into big forkful-sized wedges and eat them either in a salad or just as a salad. Personally, I am sometimes intimidated by all the different kinds of salad greens there are, so during Tomato Time I will just buy a bunch of different varieties—endive and radicchio and baby romaine and baby arugula and spinach and whatever else—chuck them all together with a bunch of tomato wedges, dress it all with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and trust that the tomato will unite all the various leaves and cover for my imprecision. It always, always results in a delicious salad. Always.
Nothing could ever improve upon the experience of eating a whole, ripe, raw cherry tomato; the moment when it pops in your mouth and that bright, shocking red-green flavor floods your palate and wipes away your consciousness is as good as the privilege of having a sense of taste ever gets. So it seems impossible that there would ever be cherry tomatoes left over for any other purpose. But if you happen to be grilling things, and therefore can’t give your full attention to scarfing down every cherry tomato in sight, grill some cherry tomatoes while you’re at it. On a skewer or, I suppose, just scattered across the cooking grate on your charcoal kettle. They’ll burst in the heat and turn a darker red, and acquire a lustier, deeper flavor. Then you can scatter them around and on whatever else you’re serving, or just sneak off to a corner and eat them all yourself.
What else? How do you celebrate Tomato Time? Let us know in the comments, unless your answer is “I don’t celebrate Tomato Time, that’s not really a thing so far as I’m concerned,” in which case feed yourself to a bear.