That’s No Tomato, That’s a Work of Art

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Bill Moyers discusses how creative technologies bring new shape and flavor to a favorite food, the common tomato.


Bill Moyers: I’m Bill Moyers. America is a nation of fiddlers. I don’t mean the musical variety. I mean people who fiddle around with things to see what makes them tick, and how they can be made to tick differently. Sometimes we fiddle out of just plain curiosity, to see what’s there. Other times we fiddle because there’s a problem to be solved. But most of the time, frankly, we fiddle because there’s money to be made. Alexis de Tocqueville saw that on his famous tour early last century when he looked around and said, “These Americans think of nothing but increasing their fortune. It’s from this motive” he concluded, “that a democratic people addicts itself to scientific pursuits.”

At the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, another foreign visitor looked at all the gadgets and said, “The American invents as the Italian paints and Greeks sculpted.” Well, this talent for fiddling around with things came to be known as Yankee ingenuity. Although many of the people who came here from abroad to fiddle could hardly speak English. Lately, there’s evidence that our technological fiddling — our inventiveness — isn’t what it used to be. Our share of the major inventions brought to the market for example has declined by about a fourth since the 1950s.

But a lot of people haven’t lost the fiddling spirit, thank goodness, and the tomato is here as proof. Two thoughts concerning technology and the creative process are inspired while meditating upon the tomato: One — that ideas don’t spring full-blown but grow, like tomatoes if you will, one from another. And two — that even something as seemingly simple as this requires time, energy and imagination from many people if we’re going to fiddle around to produce a better tomato, or a better tomorrow. Here’s what I mean.

Like bourbon, the peanut and the potato, the tomato is a native of the New World. The Mayans of Mexico were the first to tame it and name it.


Bill Moyers: The original grew wild and wrinkled on the slopes of the Peruvian Andes, as yellow as the gold of Aztec treasure troves. Hernando Cortès helped himself to plenty of both and when an Indian uprising revoked his license to loot, he withdrew across the Yucatan. With him, as much a part of his plunder as gold and jewels, tomato seeds from the great bazaar at Chichen Itza.

The chefs of the Spanish court delighted in his find and made of it the first tomato sauce.

Bill Moyers: Probably because it was plump and succulent, the cultivated pomodoro quickly gained celebration throughout Europe as an aphrodisiac. Italians ate it every way. The Germans dubbed it —

Voice: Liebesapfel! Love Apple!

Bill Moyers: — and the French lapped it up. Raw or cooked, sliced or sauced, the tomato laid claim to all of Europe.

Bill Moyers: In England of course the Puritans demurred. Botanists declared the tomato a relative of the deadly belladonna and therefore banned it as a potent poison. Small wonder then that when it appeared on our shores, the tangy tomato had become the much-maligned “wolf peach.” It took this man, Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson, to test the ban by eating not one, but an entire basket of the dreaded things in public.

Voices: Suicide. Don’t do it! No!

Bill Moyers: The year was 1830 and the place, Salem, New Jersey. In his valedictory address Johnson prophesied —

Col. Johnson: The time will come when this luscious golden apple, rich in nutritive value, a delight to the eye, a joy to the palate, whether fried, baked or eaten raw will form the foundation of a great garden industry and will be recognized, eaten and enjoyed as an edible food.

Voice: No. Don’t eat it! No!

Bill Moyers: And Johnson bit and bit again.

Bill Moyers: He’d done it and he was right. That was just the beginning. Each American now consumes upwards of 50 pounds of tomatoes a year and there are thousands of varieties to choose from. There’s the square tomato, of course, and the hollow one for stuffing. One breeder has even come up with a cross between a potato plant and a tomato vine so that growers can have both crops from a single plant.

Voice: We’re about ready to cut the cake, but one more time, we’d like to thank you all for coming and also, for the first time in three years, you’ll notice that the cake is a processing tomato. It’s a square round. We’re not going any more into these round-fruited darn varieties anyhow.

Bill Moyers: This is Peto Seeds’ Tomato Day in Woodland, California. About 300 major growers gather here each autumn to sample the newest of the newfangled tomatoes.

Voice: We call it Early Peel 1488 and to us it’s one of the super looking pear tomatoes. From what we’ve seen so far, why, it’ll peel also. It’s a good peeler, holds up well.

Bill Moyers: Colin Wyeth heads up Peto Seeds’ fresh market operation.

Voice: Thick wall.

Voice: How does it taste?

Voice: Good taste.

Voice: That’s the most important thing.

Bill Moyers: Some of what gets shown here are fads, the Edsels of agriculture. But this year’s fad is next year’s fancy. And when it comes to improvisation on a theme of profit, more red means more green. Growers look to the day when we’ll all have such treats as tomato chips and salamis with the ketchup all built-in.

Voice: — product development, and get a processed tomato vegetable on the dinner plate, which is where all the action is, you know. Lunch and dinner.

Voice: Think of how much more production that is in California, you know, another 300 to another million tons maybe.

Voice: I think the big thing is to keep the focus on the problems.

Voice: And if you could freeze that product, there’s another two million. So, you’re talking a potential market of four million tons of processing tomatoes that would make a product that would not compete with any processed tomato product on the market today.

Jack Hanna: What you see here represents some 15 years of work trying to change the shape of the tomato. And our object here is to get a long tomato and eventually get better size than this. The idea that you can slice this tomato and get uniform slices.

Bill Moyers: That’s Jack Hanna. He is to tomatoes what Halston is to ultra-suede. Jack calls his latest creation the McDonald’s Tomato because it can be sliced as thin as fast food pickles and is intended to adorn billions of hamburger buns.

Jack Hanna: — an extended period of time without deteriorating.

Bill Moyers: And how do they taste?

Jack Hanna: Some of these are very good. This is not as acid as we’d like, but this is in the process still of being developed. Eventually we’ll have it. Just how soon we’ll have it, we don’t know.

Bill Moyers: Ah, well, perfection eludes nearly all of us. To mass market growers, a hot tomato is something with thick walls, plenty of disease-resistance and high soluble solids. And who could expect something to taste like the best of Grandma’s garden when it has to handle like Samsonite.

Voice: You can see the need for this firm tomato when you look at harvesting them and putting them into 10-ton trailers. And when you have 10 tons of weight on this fruit and what you get out when you finally get it through to the cannery whether it’s cracked and broken, because that becomes a loss to the canner and to the industry, really, when the fruit cracks.

Bill Moyers: Enter the engineers. It’s their job to calculate just how much the modern tomato can take.

Roger Garrett: The strength of a tomato is determined to a large extent by the strength of the skin itself, because as the tomato is compressed the volume inside the tomato is reduced and so the pressure builds up inside, exerting pressure out against the skin.

Bill Moyers: Roger Garrett is Chairman of the Agriculture Engineering Department at the University of California at Davis.

Roger Garrett: And at some point the stress in that skin will exceed the maximum that it can tolerate. This test helps us to determine what the maximum stress is.

Roger Garrett: We don’t like to have our tomatoes thin-skinned. We like to be able withstand the stresses that they have to endure in a normal handling system situation.

Bill Moyers: This is normal handling, where the tomato meets the 10-ton trailer. Davy Crockett had it easier at the Alamo.

Bill Moyers: The firmer the tomato, the fewer the bruises. So, fresh market tomatoes are picked apple-green and apple-hard. Color is applied chemically several steps closer to the salad bowl. Eventually electronic eyes, instead of human ones, will reject what’s red and ripe. One operator will be able to do the work that now requires a dozen or more. To workers that means no more stooped labor. To growers, no more strike threats. But as frequently happens, the solution to one set of problems is the seed of another. In the case of the tomato, a plentitude of inventions means a paucity of jobs. By the turn of the century, field workers will likely be as rare as California condors, a yet unsolved side effect of the machine that evolved from a notion in Jack Hanna’s head.

Jack Hanna: If you look at the present machine out there today, it’s really an F-1 hybrid between a potato digger and a grain harvester. The elements of that potato digger are still there and the grain harvester is there. And so it was a good marriage between those two machines.

Les Haringer: Jack started out about 1951 to try to put a tomato together that we could put through the machine because that was the only way we could see to travel.

Bill Moyers: Tomato grower Les Harringer was the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Les Haringer: — the university, developed both the tomato and the machine, and we built that machine in 1960. Went out and harvested twelve hundred tons the first year. We tried to work during the daytime and all night we’d work to try to put the machine back together.

Bill Moyers: The applied ingenuity that went into that first jerry-built machine didn’t end with the 1960 tomato harvest. Refinements are still being added all the time by both plant breeders and machine mavens. Some ideas come from field trials. The overhead awning, for example, was added after workers complained of incipient sunstroke. Other embellishments come from academic minds, as often as not from the faculty here at the campus of the University of California at Davis. Davis has long been acclaimed for the range of its agriculture research and the innovation of its students and faculty. Jack Hanna was on the faculty here when he came up with the tomato harvester. Others here have designed such things as the automatic squid-skinning machine, a smaller almond to fit the smaller candy bar and a mechanical harvester that shakes the peaches right off the tree.

Bill Moyers: The wheels are still spinning in the tomato section, too. This is the de-stemmer prototype, Greg Shucker’s contribution to the late 20th century tomato. The object is to snag the stems before they bruise or puncture neighboring tomatoes. Here, as elsewhere, progress declines to follow a neat, straight, predictable path.

Greg Shucker: Well, I’ve been working on this model for this past summer and I’m not sure it’s going to work. It works after a fashion. Inspiration is hard to come by, but perspiration, there always seems to be plenty of it. There’s a lot of perspiration in the machine. That takes an initial concept and an initial idea and then to reduce that to something that’s a piece of hardware, this requires time and some effort.

Voice: Well, I think there’s a certain amount of Rube Goldberg in all of our faculty here. We enjoy learning what mechanisms can do and trying to make them do things that — well, in many cases they were never intended for.

Bill Moyers: But what will remain to tinker with when the machines and plants are perfect? Us, that’s who. There’s a whole new engineering field called human factors. Steve Kamanaka is in it. He’s devising a means of making farmers hoe a straighter row

Steve Kamanaka: It’s basically a tractor-driving simulator and the idea behind it is that eventually we want to get an idea what the tractor operator sees and how fast he can respond to what he sees.

Bill Moyers: Couldn’t you accomplish the same thing by asking tractor drivers?

Steve Kamanaka: Well, I think in human factors you find that when you ask the opinion of an operator, in many cases you find that they’ve accommodated to the deficiencies of the equipment such that they no longer really realize what is a problem with the equipment.

Voice: Machines tend to scare people a lot of times simply because they don’t understand them. But really, there are only a few very basic, simple machine types and anything else is just a combination of those. You get some rather complex combinations, but I think it’s very important that people in general have that kind of appreciation of machinery because we live in a mechanical world. We have machines around us at all times and we need to — to learn how to use them for the things that we want them to do.

Bill Moyers: By the time those tomatoes get to market, they’ll have seen as much action as most soldiers. They’re already about as tough. Each will travel thousands of miles, have a shelf life of about four months, and get gassed to control ripening.

Will the tomato ever strike back? In John DeBello’s thriller film it does. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” won the Golden Turkey Award as the worst vegetable movie ever.

Voice: The nation is in chaos. Can nothing stop this tomato onslaught? Last night tomatoes attacked Los Angeles —

Voice: — Boston, Seattle, Chicago.

Wildtrack: [Song from the movie, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Music and lyrics by John DeBello]

Attack of the killer tomatoes.

Attack of the killer tomatoes.

They’ll beat you, bash you,

squish you, mash you, chew you up for brunch.

And finish you off for dinner or lunch.

I know I’m going to miss her.

A tomato ate my sister.

The police have gone on strike today.

The National Guard has run away.

Tomatoes will have their day.

Attack of the killer tomatoes.

Attack of the killer tomatoes.

They’ll beat you, bash you,

squish you, mash you, chew you up for brunch

And finish you off for dinner or lunch, munch munch.

Dinner or lunch, munch munch. Dinner or lunch.

Voice: You don’t mean?

Voice: This, may God help us, is a cherry tomato.

Bill Moyers: Absurd, you say, ridiculous. Well don’t be so hasty. Here in this Davis clone closet, microbiologist Ray Valentine is growing whole plants from single cells. No soil, no seed, no birds, no bees and that’s fact, not science fiction.

Ray Valentine: Genetic engineering, both gene splicing, molecular cloning and cloning of the plants is probably the single most important discovery in biology in my lifetime or perhaps forever. We believe that it’s going to cause a revolution in terms of productivity in food production and biological energy production in the world. Many people liken the discovery of genetic engineering to the harnessing of the atom in terms of its potential impact on mankind.

The green Petri dishes contain literally millions of individual plant cells. In each dish now, very small dish, only the size — size of this Petri dish, you have the potential for looking at millions of kinds of plants. So, in a way, this is an attempt to speed up evolution, to increase the selective powers to obtain various kinds of rare mutants, plant mutants that might exist in these dishes. An interesting example would be a case in which we are looking for crops that can grow using sea water, marine water, irrigation. If there’s one single quote “clone” or one single mutant in this population, by flooding the plate with simply table salt — which is the main ingredient in sea water — by adding table salt to these plates, if a clone continues to grow, it’s possible that this clone then might be ultimately a salt-resistant or a marine water type of plant.

Bill Moyers: Finding plants that will grow in salty water is fast becoming a top priority. The coastal deserts of the world might then become productive of much needed food. Land now salting up from misuse and overuse might be brought back. Millions of acres are involved and tons of potential produce. To get from the speculative to the specific, Dale Rush and his Davis colleagues are taking the clones out of the closet and growing them in this green house on Bodega Bay.

Dale Rush: What we’re trying to do is to demonstrate the feasibility of breeding for salt tolerance in economically useful plants like we have bred in the past for yield, disease resistance, insect and pest resistance and those sorts of things. And, unfortunately, we’ve gotten kind of a late start on this because there’s been essentially in this country — there’s been an abundance of land and water and we had no need to use poor quality water or poor quality soil or deal with salts because there was always more land and always more water. And, therefore, we didn’t need to worry about growing plants on marginal land or developing species that had to be able withstand adverse conditions such as salinity. So, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to go back and modify our plants so that they can cope with the environment, rather than modifying the environment to meet the needs of our plants, as we’ve done with agriculture in the past.

Bill Moyers: The irony is that these tomatoes taste better. The salt content in their cells gives them back that long lost tang. Once again dumb luck puts us on the brink, of a great lurch forward.

Bill Moyers: Now they’re working on — a space tomato? Not only will there be no birds and no bees. There will be no gravity either. So astronauts will be armed with vibrators to pollinate their plants.

Wayne Collins: We’re demonstrating how you can grow crops even in space. We’ve already done some preliminary paper studies for NASA on the potential of developing agricultural crops in large space colonies. There is a literature on that in the United States and studies have been done in the Soviet Union.

Bill Moyers: Wayne Collins is one of the directors of the Environmental Research Lab at the University of Arizona. ERL is trying to figure out how adaptations of earth-bound agricultural techniques can help keep down the cost of getting groceries into orbit.

Wayne Collins: You betcha it would be cheaper to grow vegetables in space in systems like these if we’re going to have people living in big tin cans up in the air someday. Because it just takes too much money to think of shooting soil up there in the air as well as seeds. We have almost all of the major food crops of the world growing in this greenhouse and others and all cheek-by-jowl. We’ve got desert crops growing with tropical crops like rice, to show people that these things can be done. And in these systems where you have to spend a great deal of money and a great deal of energy to control the environment, it’s not economically feasible to use just the area of the floor. You’ve got to use the whole cubic volume of the greenhouse because that’s what you’re paying a lot of money to control. So, vine crops, like tomatoes and cucumbers and different kinds of melons and squash, are the things to go for. Or growing different types of row vegetables in A-frames or other structures that go up and use the whole volume.

Bill Moyers: Scientists and engineers will extrapolate from these experiments as they prepare to launch the space tomato. Extending, discovery by discovery, the lore that brought us from Cortès to Colonel Johnson, from Jack Hanna to R-2/D-2. Years from now what happens to tomatoes today may come to seem positively quaint. One can even imagine space dwellers waxing nostalgic over the good old days when tomatoes were merely clones.

Wayne Collins: What we’re demonstrating here are aeroponic systems, growing plants without soil and without — by roots — even in water. The roots of these plants are just hanging down in the air inside these chambers and they’re periodically misted with a water/nutrient mix. This would be applicable in space, but they have some terrestrial applications even now because there are places in the world where it’s just extremely difficult to grow table vegetables because either no soil is locally available — there’s nothing but bare rock — or what soil is available is more valuable in construction industries and things like that. By the way, these are all high quality fruit, too. They don’t taste like sawdust or anything like that. These tomatoes and the lettuce and the rest are getting the proper nutrients and they taste just as good as any greenhouse product you’ve ever had.

Bill Moyers: Can the astronauts anticipate space tomatoes that will actually taste good?

Wayne Collins: [LAUGHS] If they go up there in the air and they get tomatoes that don’t taste good, they ought to fire their grower and ship him back down to Earth and hire a new one.

Voice: 5-4-3-2-1-0.

Wildtrack: (Lifting-off vehicle sounds)

This transcript was entered on April 28, 2015.

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