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After I moved to Manhattan in 2011, I discovered I simply HAD to stop buying my favorite vegetable (or perhaps, fruit), the tomato. It took me a long time to get the message. For six months I tried - the local supermarket, the suburban one, Costco, street vendors, you name it, and I ended up with a red piece of cardboard mush that tasted like straw. I assumed that it would get better in the summer or fall, but no. It didn’t matter where I went, I just couldn’t find a decent tomato.
So in the fall that year I stopped buying tomatoes altogether. And I had enough fibrous, tasteless, chunks of tomato-like-substances in store-bought salads to convince me it was the right decision.
I don’t think this a New York thing. Commercial/industrial/factory farming has led to the production of zillions of perfect-looking, round, red spheres that are hardy enough to withstand machinery, packaging, transport and long term storage. Taste and texture of the eaten product is given short shrift. I blame agri-business in part, and people like me in part (for continuing to buy that crap for too long).
That’s why I was so shocked a few weeks ago, in the bitter cold of (then) November to be walking on the Upper West Side and see tomatoes on a farmers market table. As you know, the rules of a farmers market is that produce has to be local. Sometimes organic, sometimes not, but almost always from a family-owned and operated farm.
I walked past, skeptically. But the next week (when it was even colder– 25 degrees), I saw that same table. I stopped and, shaking my head, bought two tomatoes. Considering myself a fool of course, because I assumed they’d be frozen through after sitting outside all day.
In fact, I waited two days before cutting into the first one, as I imagined I would just be tossing it into the garbage. But you could have knocked me over with a feather. Cutting it open, I could smell the aroma of a tomato, and popping a piece in my mouth it had that unmistakably sweet-salty-liquidy taste of the REAL thing.
Last Sunday, I went back eagerly to buy a few more. Handing both a yellow and a red one to the farmer to weigh, I told him I was shocked at how good they were. He replied that they had harvested all of their tomatoes prior to the first killing frost, and were storing them in a greenhouse. “But,” he said happily, “this is my last week out here, next week I’m sleeping in!”
I guess it’s a bit much to expect to find fresh, locally-grown field tomatoes in the NorthEast in the middle of December.
Now obviously these delicious tomatoes have been all around me at farmers markets the whole time I have lived out here. But unlike California and Wisconsin, where I frequented those markets as often as possible, here in NY I have always confined my shopping trips to an individual store. When you walk everywhere and carry everything with you, it takes an extra effort to stop somewhere and only buy a few things, potentially having to schlepp them around all day before getting home.
It seems much simpler to get the car out (or my granny cart) and do just one big shopping on Sunday at an actual supermarket.
Of course, I should also give a shout out to the produce cart vendors that sit on the street corners of Manhattan. Although their tomatoes suck, I almost always buy my fresh fruit from them. It’s not organic or local, but they tend to have the best quality stuff and it’s always at a rock-bottom price.
This morning I was able to dash across the street and grab two plastic boxes of strawberries for five bucks! Half the price of the supermarket one across the street, and they’re not mushy, or stale, or moldy.
Just goes to show you that sometimes you gotta keep looking.