Tomatofilter: 2% chance I'm crazy; 98% chance something (good) is up with our country's tomatos.
August 17, 2009 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Tomato question: Did something happen late last Autumn that could have caused low-priced/budget tomatoes in (U.S.) fast-food restaurants and supermarkets to become radically better tasting? My perception of increased quality had a sudden onset, was not chain-specific, not geographically localized, and is shared by a handful of friends.

(tl;drers, question is as stated above; the screed below is just the boring details. I suspect that help might come from food/soil/earth scientists, ag-economists, farmers, restaurant suppliers, or some other industry insider. Barring that, I suppose there's an outside chance that help might come in the form of two men in white coats dragging me to a rubber room.)

Last November a friend made a salad with sliced tomatoes that tasted amazing. I asked if she had sprung for some fancy brand or got them from a ritzy store; she said no, that they were the cheapest fresh type at the local chain supermarket. I didn't believe her but thought nothing of it at the time.

Within a few days I ordered a $2 burger at a fast food chain and was treated to a fucking amazing tomato there, as well. The floodgates then opened, and for, say, two weeks following, every tomato I ate (from whichever restaurant or grocery chain), tasted fantastic. At the time I chalked this up to some major regional (I live in St. Louis) supplier (Sysco?) stumbling onto a great shipment or something. Again, thought nothing further of it at the time.

At that point, and for the next 1.5 months, I traveled to: several New England states, Central Texas, and Northern California, eating at dives and fast-food joints for most every meal, and--I shit you not--in perhaps 70% of the meals I consumed was what I will call, for brevity "the SuperTomato".

I feel confident in the stark difference of the two; if you spend any amount of time eating tomatos, I'm betting that you'll agree that the difference between a "bad" and a "good" tomato is about as subtle as the difference between a whisper and a shout. The things I am describing taste like completely different things, it's not just a slight or stepwise increase in quality. I feel entirely confident that in a single-blind taste test I would correctly identify "SuperTomato" from "old-and-busted cheap tomato" 100 times out of 100.

My Question to food/soil/atmospheric scientists, agricultural economists, restaurant buyers and the like: Barring delusion on my part, what could be responsible for a flood of great tomatoes across the country at the bottom-end of the tomato pricing tier? This is either a real phenomenon, or the damndest case of my senses tricking me that I've ever seen.

Confirmation Bias? Maybe... hard to tell, obviously. But I've tried to screen for it at every step. I've asked, say, 8 friends and got 5 blank looks, 1 "yeah, now that you mention it", and 2 soul-piercing, thousand-yard stares of disbelief followed by a "You've noticed it, too?!"

I'm not a gastronome or a foodie or a "supertaster" or anything close. I'm just an average guy who eats average, cheap food. I have always eaten a normal amount of cheap store-bought tomatoes and until this happened, had uniformly normal reactions to them. I have no history of sensory hallucinations, no recent head-trauma, mental illness, or significant lifestyle changes. Please tell me what the fuck is up with my 'maters. Apologies for the length. Thanks.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Also: Officially discouraging "tomatochatfilter" to the extent that I can. Tried to make the question as specific as possible. Please let me know if I can help clarify anything. (And, holy hell, sorry again about the length...)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 12:29 PM on August 17, 2009

If it's not confirmation bias, it could be the exponential growth of greenhousing, which has come a long way in the last decade.
posted by Miko at 12:46 PM on August 17, 2009

Anecdata to support confirmation bias:

Our fast-food, low-to-mid-range-restaurant, and supermarket tomatoes are pretty effing terrible here in DC/MD/VA, as per usual. Absolutely gotta go to a farmers market to find anything decent here.
posted by somanyamys at 12:49 PM on August 17, 2009

There's a pretty major tomato blight problem for the last while, so it could be that we're getting different varietals (that are perhaps less susceptible to the blight) than we're used to, or more greenhouse grown tomatoes, since they're more shielded from windborn infections. I don't know this, though, just speculating on a possible connection to offer it up as an angle for you to look into for possible causes.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:52 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I notice that your experiences are not with "tomatoes" but with "tomatoes-and". As in, tomatoes in a salad, or tomatoes in a burger. The combination of flavors may be enhancing what you think is the tomato taste in itself.

Perhaps get two friends to help administer a double-blind test with tomatoes alone. Have friend A get some farmer's market and store-bought tomatoes. Have friend B administer slices without knowing which slices are associated with which tomato. (You'll need to wear a blindfold, because the appearance of the tomato will be a dead giveaway.) Testing may help confirm or dispel confirmation bias.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:56 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

It would not be impossible for a grocery store and several restaurants in the same region to all receive their produce from a single supplier. Perhaps that supplier changed growers, or started substituting a different variety to deal with a blight or shortage?

The grocery store is the right place to focus your efforts, since there you can touch/smell/identify them, and probably talk to someone about their origin. Once armed with that info, you can move on to the restaurants, knowing just what to ask.
posted by rokusan at 1:02 PM on August 17, 2009

Blazecock: Not ruling out that the complimentary foods/flavors could impact my perception of the taste... but I've not changed in any way the types of foods I consume tomatoes with. For example: the salad that started this whole thing (we'll call it "Salad Zero") was just spinach, onions and tomato slices, no dressing. For the record, I've not noticed any changes, large or small, in the quality of other produce (save clementine oranges, which have always had a depressingly wide range of quality, but no cyclical pattern I've ever been able to perceive).

Should be noted, though, that I do not consume a tremendous amount of produce... and that the produce I do consume (if I'm not lucky enough to have a friend whose garden is overproducing) is always just the cheapest stuff at the market.

Blindfolded taste test sounds like a really fun Sunday afternoon, though. Strongly considering it.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 1:13 PM on August 17, 2009

Would significantly increased rainfall in many parts of USA this year make a tomato sweeter and less acidic? (My tomatoes this year are far sweeter and milder than the same variety I grew in 2008, which was much less rainy here.) Of course, rain would probably not apply to greenhouse tomatoes.
posted by applemeat at 1:51 PM on August 17, 2009

For what it's worth, I went to Wendy's yesterday and the tomatoes were just as crunchy and god-awful as I remembered them being here in Western NYS.

(They have vastly improved their bacon, but that's rather outside the scope of the question...)
posted by agentmunroe at 2:18 PM on August 17, 2009

There was that salmonella scare last year, back in June. Probably a lot of the crops had to be disposed of, and the more expensive crops were bought up to fill the void. All of a sudden, better tomatoes in the later part of the year. I'm sure that better tasting tomatoes would also convince people to eat more after not eating a whole lot.
posted by cathoo at 4:50 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's entirely possible they are better than they used to be. It's unlikely this is due to genetic engineering or some crazy tomato breakthrough. Mostly likely it is just a season stroke-of-luck situation and they'll be back to being crappy next year.
posted by chairface at 4:56 PM on August 17, 2009

Seconding applemeat. The tomatoes from my backyard are tasting exceptionally sweet this summer. I guess it is all the rain, because I haven't done anything special to them (no fertilizer, no pesticides, no playing Mozart for them...)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:51 PM on August 17, 2009

Perhaps your local eateries have a local source for tomatoes, which are in season. Because I stand by my grandmother's firm belief that no decent tomato comes from a store.
posted by answergrape at 8:01 PM on August 24, 2009

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