The air inside the small greenhouse at Vermont’s Kingsbury Market Garden is warm from the cooking compost and heady with the fecund fug of tomato leaves. The fragrance is both dusky and divine, with hints of basil. The tomato vines, cleverly staked with cables suspended from the greenhouse ceiling, hang down thick, lush, and jungly, bearing abundant red, ripe fruit. You can feel what my husband, a man not usually given to religion or poetry, called the chi of the tomato.
Chi — Chinese for “life force” — is the very thing you don’t get with most commercially grown tomatoes. We know from author Barry Estabrook (and, sadly, from personal experience) what commercial tomatoes are: pallid, tasteless, and baseball-hard, not to mention unsustainable, unethical, and, might I add, utterly lacking in sex drive.
To me, life force is carnal. It is eros, libido, sex. Come on, you know what I mean. Real tomatoes, like the ones growing at Kingsbury Market Garden, are primal and more than a little sensuous. Some Biblical scholars have posited the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden wasn’t an apple at all, but a tomato. Seeing them on the vine there, you can understand why.
They’re full, inviting, and so big they require two hands to hold. What’s more, they create in you the desire to hold them. With both hands.
And then you bite into one, not with fork and knife, but with your teeth, as though eating an apple. The tomato’s thin membrane of skin gives way and the flesh yields to touch and tooth. It spills forth its seeds and secrets, filling your mouth with a bright burst of juice and incredible flavor — sweet yet sparked with acidity, full and long and lingering like wine.
If it led to Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence, you can see how it also gave them some fun ideas. It is not for nothing the French have called the tomato pomme d’amour, or “apple of love.”
Sadly, our markets and mouths have become saturated by mass-produced, agribusiness tomatoes, which are truly pale imitations of the real deal. Our senses — and our sensuality — have become dulled, too. Worse, we not only expect it, we accept it.
We are libidoless and lovelorn. And we don’t even know it. A steady diet of this stuff has turned us as pale and chi-less as the mass-produced tomatoes themselves. So even when we know better — and we do — we can’t summon the energy or life force to fight, to stand up and protest what we know is wrong, to demand and buy food that’s safe and sustainable and luscious and full of chi, not additives. The earth is heating up and we are cooling off.
We weren’t born this way. We are red-blooded and warm-blooded (hot-blooded, even). We are flesh and desire. What we eat should be, too — even those who prefer to live G-rated lives. Around 300 B.C., Hippocrates said, “Let medicine be thy food and food thy medicine.” OK, he said it in ancient Greek, but you get the gist: food can cure you. The energy in the tomato you eat gives you energy.
I’m all for energy, but I’m also after a ripe tomato’s racy quality, its earthiness. Earth, after all, is where it comes from, and the Japanese word for earth, tsuchi, includes the word “chi.” And the amazing, awesome, chi-mad thing is, you can get this kind of thrill every time you eat.
A fresh, ripe, local, honest tomato is erotic, yes, but also inspiring. My husband’s personal encounter with the tomatoes growing in Kingsbury Market Garden has had more impact on him than all the things he’s read about how sustainable farming can save the world (including stuff I’ve written).
“What’s local?” he asked, eyeing the produce the next time we went food shopping. Not tomatoes. In Vermont, home of Kingsbury Market Garden, yes, and maybe near you, too, but not in Miami. Not now.
Since our return from Vermont, we’ve succumbed exactly once, falling from grace and buying Big Ag tomatoes. The taste (or lack thereof) reminded us why this is not a good idea. And the hidden cost of so-called cheap food is something I can’t stomach.
So for now, my husband and I are tomatoless, but are looking ahead to fall, which is southern Florida’s growing season. We’re planning to grow red Russian kale, Cherry Bell radishes, arugula, oregano, lemon balm, mint, thyme, basil, and our own earthy tomatoes. This past year, we grew tiny heirlooms: Mexican Midgets and Tommy Toes (say the name fast and you’ll hear the pun). This time around, we’re thinking more, thinking bigger: Better Boys, Cherokee Purples, and the variety everyone lusts after, Brandywine. These are heirlooms with names alone to make you swoon.
A little swooning, a little lust. These things belong in our daily diet as much — or maybe more than — today’s most touted and Tweeted-about nutrient. Everything we eat infuses us with its energy, its essence, its life force. That local, ripe tomato? Eat it up.
Related recipe: Tomato Ginger Preserves
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The Food Corps co-founder
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Beyond a supporting role