Anyone from East Texas has surely heard the phrase: There are two things money can’t buy; True Love and home grown tomatoes. My parents farmed a plot of ground just outside of Jacksonville, Texas and as a kid I never knew how valuable tomatoes grown in the sandy soil of Cherokee County would come to be. These days, signs at produce stands everywhere proclaim Jacksonville Tomatoes as a gold standard.
So why are home grown tomatoes so flavorful? The answer is time of harvest and soil. Commercially grown tomatoes that we get in the store have been harvested green because they are more firm and will travel better with less bruising, ripening on the way to market. When you leave your homegrown tomatoes on the vine until they are at peak ripeness, the fruit has more time to take nutrients and flavonoids from the plant giving it the red color and a fuller flavor. The soil also makes a difference. Soil that has been depleted from large scale agriculture will produce fruit of lower quality and flavor. Rotating your garden site periodically will improve your garden output and the quality of produce. Storing tomatoes at room temperature will also preserve their flavor.
Interestingly, the fuller flavor is also an indicator of health benefit. In addition to the rich array of vitamins and minerals in tomatoes (high in potassium which lowers your blood pressure), these powerhouse fruits also contain health promoting antioxidants such as quercetin and kaempferol. These substances slow down the aging process by reducing oxidative damage to our cells and DNA. This reduces the formation of hardening of the arteries, and inhibits cancer cell formation.
A ten-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard produce found that they had almost twice as many antioxidants (flavonoids) which means that those tomatoes grown in your garden not only taste better but are much better at lowering your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.
I remember picking tomatoes as a pre-teen. I didn’t even like tomatoes back then and the thought of working in a garden was absolutely not at the top of my favorites list. But these days, there is nothing like the fresh full flavor of a vine ripened tomato that I have nurtured for weeks in the garden. And the activity of shoveling, mulching and weeding is a welcome way to relieve stress and stay loose.
Connoisseurs of tomatoes all have their favorite recipes. But in the early summer of East Texas lots of people are eating tomato sandwiches. My favorite includes a good whole wheat bread, with light mayo and coarse black pepper, and of course a thick slab of tomato. Look for ways to include tomatoes in your weekly meals. You will be adding flavor, color and health but more importantly you might be inviting True Love into your home.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian and Director of Clinical Nutrition and the HC Polk Education Center at Memorial Health System in Lufkin. The Polk Center provides individual and group education on diabetes, heart disease and stroke; monthly classes on healthy cooking; and monthly support groups in Lufkin and Livingston. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service and the City of Lufkin, the Polk Center produces the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations where dietitian Tim Scallon teams up with Chef Manuel Marini to demonstrate how healthy eating can taste great. The show can be seen on cable in 46 cities and on the Memorial web site at http://www.memorialhealth.org. Call 639-7585 for more information.