Friday, October 1, 2010

You Say Tomato, I Say Weird Looking

Mama and baby turkey tomatoes.
We grouse a lot about the weather in the Pacific Northwest, even though we'd never want to live anywhere else. (Most of the time.)

But this year we had good reason to complain. According to University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass, "We had far fewer 70F days (55) than normal (72) and in fact this has been the worst year by this measure since 1980! Yes, the worst summer for three decades! No one younger than 35 can remember anything worse!"

Fall has been odd, too. September, usually a glorious month, warm and dry, was sloppy and wet and chilly for a few weeks before suddenly turning tropical and humid. Flowers are blooming even as the trees are turning orange and yellow.

But I don't know if any of this explains the weird-looking tomatoes.

By all measures, our vegetable garden was a flop this year. A very cold, wet spring and cool, damp July didn't encourage our seedlings to grow--there wasn't any sun to reach for. The strawberries languished, the snowpeas barely clung to their frame (they looked like those cartoon characters who dangle from cliff edges by three or four elongated fingers), and the chard bolted. For at least a week I felt like Katharine Hepburn in "Stage Door" mournfully speaking of calla lillies, except I was chanting, "The chahd has bulted."

A plateful of proper tomatoes.
The tomatoes, however, absolutely thrived, even though I never did get around to staking them. We can't grow big, juicy beefsteak tomatoes in the Northwest without a lot of effort--we just don't get the warm nights and hot days they require. (Which makes me think back very fondly on the day my sister brought home huge, farm-fresh slicing tomatoes, fresh bagels, and cream cheese when I visited her in Maryland--just one slice of tomato was enough to cover an entire half-bagel.)

But some varieties, such as Early Girl--the kind I planted--manage to yield a bumper crop during our warm-day/cool-night summers, and even during a crummy summer like this past one. The plants, which are sprawling out of their bed and flopping on the lawn, have produced pounds of tomatoes ranging in size from apricots to softballs. I don't know how they manage to ripen, but they do: one day they're caterpillar-green, the next day they're candy-apple red. No wonder they're reputed to be the most widely grown tomato in the Pacific Northwest.

And the taste! And texture! They don't squash when you cut into them--they slice cleanly, without a watery "splort" and expulsion of lots of goo and seeds. And most important, they taste like tomatoes. Meaning they actually have a taste. Not like the polystyrene ones from the grocery store.

The only ones we didn't devour rapidly were those aforementioned weird-looking ones, the knobby tomatoes with noses, beaks, and limbs that popped up in the garden this season. They look like they should have plastic googly eyes glued to them and be kept as pets.

This one's got antennae.
I wondered if this could be the tomato scourge known as "cat facing," in which a tomato gets deformed with scar tissue, ridges, bumps, and tough skin, particularly at one end, or if they'd just leaned against a stem or another tomato while growing.

After a bit of research, I did find that some growers do attribute a cool, wet spring as the cause of cat facing, and blame temperatures below 55 degrees during flower growth as the cause. The flowers, according to this notion, stick together and produce weird, conjoined blossoms, which in turn become weird tomatoes. Apparently the big beefsteaks and other large tomatoes turn into pretty awful looking, lumpy-bumpy monsters striped with scars, but smaller tomatoes just end up looking a little funny.

We took some pictures of them before slicing them recently. So we can confirm that although they look weird, they taste just fine. We're kind of leaning toward the completely unscientific theory that the seeds we planted from a misshapen, warty Halloween pumpkin of last year somehow influenced the tomato starts underground--the roots of all evil, as it were.

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