Our recent heat wave has left no doubt that summer is here in full swing, but I have always judged the arrival of summer by the beginning of the tomato harvest.
Early July is the typical start of the commercial tomato harvest and that is when we begin seeing the mountains of fruit in trucks traveling up and down the highways. This year's late tomato harvest has my summer clock feeling a little out of sync.
My first job after moving to California was dispatching tomato trucks to the harvest fields and then I worked my way through college in the tomato cannery.
After graduating with a food science degree, I went to work in product development and found I was still working with tomatoes and analyzing tomato paste.
For many years my career consisted of figuring out what else to do with a tomato.
These days, just like my mom, I get out my canning jars, my hot water bath canner and hope to capture a little bit of summer in a jar.
I've expanded on the traditional stewed tomatoes and usually make salsa, pizza sauce and a batch of bloody Mary mix for Christmas gifts or when I need a quick hostess gift.
My husband also works in the tomato industry and it seems our 20 years together have always revolved around the tomato season. It is a wonder that I still love and look forward to the arrival of that magnificent fruit.
Yes, fruit! Even through we think of fruits as being sweet, and we typically eat tomatoes as a savory item, tomatoes are botanically a fruit since they produce seeds. Technically speaking, anything that contains a seed or is a seed itself is a fruit, and that includes cucumbers, as well as green beans. How we use the term vegetable has strayed from its true botanical meaning and now is generally used to refer to most things found in our produce section that are eaten as savory.
In the late 1800s, the U.S. Supreme Court passed a ruling categorizing tomatoes as vegetables so they could be subject to taxation and I think this has contributed to our confusion. Tomatoes are a big business and last year, according to the USDA, over 11 million tons of processing and fresh market tomatoes were produced in California alone. Now that's a lot of tomatoes.
You are probably more familiar with the heirloom tomatoes that are available for home gardeners and beautifully arranged for sale at our Lodi Farmer's Market. There are well over 400 heirloom varieties whose seeds are open pollinated and have been passed down through generations because of their great qualities. They produce sweet, juicy, succulent fruit in a rainbow of colors: purple, black, pink, yellow, orange and even striped, such as the green zebra.
Some of the more common heirloom varieties include Cherokee purple, Brandywine, Beefsteak and Green Grape, to name only a few.
Tomatoes are fairly an acidic fruit and some people have trouble eating them because of this quality. If their acid gives you a problem, try a yellow or orange variety, which doesn't seem to cause the same problems and they are often sweeter.
Last year, I attended the Tomato Fest in Carmel, where over 350 varieties of heirloom tomatoes were on display for sampling and restaurants had created interesting dishes using the tomato. There were tomato pies, tomato marmalade, golden tomato gazpacho, tomato ice cream, tomato napoleons with basil ice cream, and, of course, fried green tomatoes.
This is an entire day devoted to the fantastic heirloom tomato and this year's festival is September 10 at Quail Lodge Resort, Carmel. If you have the opportunity to go, I highly recommend this event.
Although tomatoes are in the markets year round now, they are truly a seasonal fruit and are best experienced at their peak of ripeness, which is right now.
Lodi resident Nancy Rostomily is a southern girl at heart, who enjoys the art and science of food. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.