The tomato. A native to Central America and bred over centuries to become a staple summer crop. Gardener's across the United States compete openly and sometimes covertly to be the first with ripe tomatoes. Ribbons and trophies are handed out in nearly every community for the best-tasting tomato. Competitive tomatoe growers hold dear to 'secret' cultural practices. Some of these tricks never leave the confines of the family, but instead, are passed down from generation to generation.
With all our homage to the tomato, how did it come to this? Flavorless tomatoes at the height of tomato growing season. At the grocery store or restaurant our sacred fruit holds little in common with the tomatoes I ate as a child and now grow at my own home. At a restaurant when the server comes to collect our plates, we always seem to send back the parsley and tomatoes. Tomato as a garnish? Inconceivable!
Why tomatoes? Most children must be persuaded of a tomato's virtues, myself included. So why do I balk at supermarket tomatoes while craving delicious tomatoes fresh from the vine? The answer may lie more in our nose than our stomach.
Humans have evolved to rely mostly on vision as our primary sense to perceive the environment. However, scent has deep ties to our brain. Additionally, our nose is the key in tasting what we put in our mouth. The olfactory, the organ in our nose which processes smells, has a direct connection to the amygdala (emotional) and hippocampus (memory) brain areas.
Tomatoes are choked full of aroma volatiles, which are fragrant compounds that make their way into our olfactory bulb. Smelling a tomato's distinct aroma compounds sends a signal to our hippocampus and amygdala, which then light up with the memory and emotional experience of childhood when we may have first experienced that taste or scent.
Last week I craved a turkey sandwich with a fresh sliced tomato and chocolate shake because that's what my mom would make on a hot summer day for lunch. Without a fresh garden tomato, summer lunch just wouldn't be the same.
For decades, breeders have been consumed with the ratio of sugars to acids in tomatoes. While this balance makes up a significant portion of what we taste when biting into a tomato, the aroma volatiles are what lend complexity to a tomato's flavor.
A study published in 2012 titled The Chemical Interactions Underlying Tomato Flavor Preference shows that some of the most abundant aroma volatiles in tomatoes do not contribute to consumer liking. Instead, the research team identified less abundant compounds that do, particularly a volatile compound named geranial. Tomatoes with higher levels of geranial drew the preference of taste testers. Additionally, the research found that aroma volatiles like geranial could increase perceived sweetness without increasing the sugars in the fruit.
Basil contains high amounts of geranial, which must be why it pairs so well with tomatoes and may revive an otherwise bland-tasting tomato.While breeders are still a while from marketing tomato varieties based on the makeup of aromatic compounds, we can still enjoy some of our old favorites from the garden. Why do we grow tomatoes? Because they help us make summer memories.