Harry Klee has eaten, by his estimation, over 500 different varieties of tomatoes. He eats tomatoes in “massive quantities,” he says, multiple times per week.
He loves them in sauces (he has strong opinions on marinara). He loves them roasted and braised. He looks forward to them on pizzas, baked in tarts, sun-dried. But there’s one way he loathes them: raw. After participating in at least 1,000 informal taste panels while studying tomato flavor at the University of Florida, he just can’t bring himself to eat them uncooked and unseasoned anymore. “I’ve just had so many that are so bad,” he explains.
This is the problem Klee, a horticultural scientist and one of the planet’s foremost tomato experts (yes, that’s a category), is trying to fix. Tomatoes are native to South America and were eaten raw in their petite, wild form by the Inca and the Aztecs. (Think of today’s tomato cultivars as gargantuan berries.) After Columbus, tomatoes were introduced to Europe and beyond, becoming integral to a myriad of cuisines. But after World War II, something went terribly awry. American breeders who develop new tomato varieties, growers who plant and harvest them, wholesalers who sell to grocery stores, and grocery stores that sell to consumers stopped paying attention to the one thing you’d think would be most important, and which has now become Klee’s life’s work: how the tomatoes actually taste.
“The industry is set up in such a way that growers are not paid for good flavor,” says Klee, with the frustration of an avid foodie as much as that of an academic who has been able to diagnose and respond to the system’s flaws from the outside.
“They’re paid for yield. So they go to the breeders and say, we want more yield, we want disease resistance, we want tomatoes that ship a long way.” Meanwhile, consumers, unable to sample tomatoes in stores before they buy them, have historically made choices based on two criteria: appearance and price. In a culinary travesty of beefsteak-sized proportions, flavor was forgotten, and in recent years, most commercially grown tomatoes, while beautiful and cheap, have become heartbreakingly bland. They’ve lost that aromatic punch of sweetness and acidity that past generations enjoyed, which drives Klee crazy.
About an hour north of Klee’s office in Gainesville is an unassuming field lined with tomato plants. You wouldn’t know from the road that this is an extension of Klee’s lab. Here, Klee and his colleagues are trying to build the tomato of the future by merging present with past—and by imitating bees.
A UF student carefully approaches a tangle of verdant green vines wound thickly up a trellis. She is wielding, of all things, an electric toothbrush. She peers into a yellow tomato flower, then carefully reaches the buzzing instrument inside. Like an insect’s beating wings, the vibrating toothbrush produces a miniature spray of yellow pollen that the student collects and uses to fertilize another plant. Through this simulation of a natural process, a hybrid is born. And Klee is betting that one of these hybrids will return summer’s most iconic ingredient to its rightful culinary dais.
“The challenge,” says Klee, “is to restore all of the flavor of the heirlooms without compromising the gains the breeders have made”—in yield, disease resistance, and transportability. Through countless taste panels and chemical analyses, Klee’s lab has developed what he describes as “the ideal tomato.” This is a tomato that everyone, regardless of their personal preferences or cultural background, would agree tastes “great.” As of now, this tomato remains a platonic ideal. But by farming for flavor one generation of tomatoes at a time, Klee believes his lab will get there around the turn of the decade.
To Klee, the stakes are extraordinarily high. “What better way to make people improve their diets than to make fruits and vegetables that actually taste good,” he asks, “that people really want to eat?” What scares him most is when young people don’t know what great-tasting fruits and vegetables are, having only experienced bad ones—like the samples that have tragically left him unable to stomach the raw fruit to which he has devoted so much of his life. But what gives him hope is how many people are as vocally unhappy about the current state of affairs as he is, who badly want flavor back.
Over the years, Klee has sent seeds to thousands of home gardeners for some of the beautiful, flavorful tomato varieties his lab has developed on the way to a perfect commercial variety, and they write him about their experiences almost every day. They gush that they had forgotten what a real tomato should taste like. A gardener in his eighties recently wrote Klee to say that he had been waiting 50 years to eat a tomato that good again. Another gardener told him that she had been eating caprese salads every day for the last 30 days because the tomatoes were so delicious.
This summer, we’re excited to be launching our tomato program, designed to put the flavor back in summer’s quintessential fruit. All season long, you’ll receive heirloom and specialty varieties selected for their exceptional flavor. They’re picked by our farm partners when they’re ripe and tasty, like the ones you’d and fresh at a farmers’ market.