86 the Tomatoes: Are We Seasonal or Narrow-Minded?
Seasonality. It’s is a word bandied about a lot here. “Our menu is seasonally driven …” How many times have you heard a chef say that?
For some reason, tomatoes are the most seasonally sacred of all vegetables and fruits: Should an unwitting chef serve a tomato in January, I guarantee the Chowhounders will log on to vent about the sacrilege. While the average diner might be vague on the seasonality of an artichoke (it has two seasons here: spring and fall) and have no guilt about munching on green beans year-round, everyone knows that a slice of tomato=a slice of summer. (And, for the record, summer ended September 21st.)
Not surprisingly then, last week I went to order a sandwich from The Sentinel, chef Dennis Leary’s tiny sandwich shop, and noticed the note: “No more tomatoes until next summer—sorry.” Then Jessica told me that she was at Tartine and ordered an open-faced sandwich that was listed as having tomatoes on it—only to be told that tomatoes would no longer be served with it because tomatoes are out of season.
But wait: Jessica spotted Dirty Girl tomatoes at the Ferry Plaza Farmers market last weekend. And a couple weeks ago at the Alemany market, I bought some delicious dry-farmed tomatoes from Two Dog Farm. On Two Dog’s website, they say their tomatoes are available from late May to mid-November.
So those tomatoes are in season, right?
I called Paula Linton, a produce guru and salesperson for Greenleaf, the wholesaler that provides the top restaurants in town with the local, seasonal and organic. First she told me that tomatoes are “technically” out of season. “Chefs are not ordering them because they’re not very good—the skin is tough, the flavor isn’t good—the season is pretty much done,” she reported. In September, Greenleaf—which orders from farms, such as Full Belly and Capay Valley, that can supply large amounts—stopped getting tomatoes from Northern California and started sourcing from Southern California. But regardless, Paula said restaurants just aren’t ordering tomatoes right now.
But then she backtracked a bit to my question. “Really, it’s a crap shoot.” In other words, the tomatoes I bought at the market are seasonal—“but only in a good season”—when the conditions are right. And of course, Santa Cruz, which is where Dirty Girl and Two Dog are located, has a very different climate than Full Belly which is near Sacramento. In other, other words, this whole seasonality thing is pretty nebulous.
So, while, yes, the tomato season’s end is near (or gone, depending), all I’m trying to say, is, please don’t judge a chef by his tomato. And if you want a tomato with your sandwich, it's going to be BYOT. There's no time to lose here.