Tomatoes in the Wintertime

At my restaurant, we don’t serve fresh tomatoes right now. It’s January. The only tomatoes we would be able to find would be pale, waxy imitations of those harvested in August.

We do serve tomato soup, however, something that I make in 25-pound increments for the lunch menu a couple times a week (if it seems like a lot, you are underestimating the American appetite for grilled cheese and tomato soup). I make it with a high-quality brand of canned tomatoes that we buy at the restaurant. We also use these canned tomatoes in some of our sauce bases and braised winter greens.

In the summer, when we can get fresh tomatoes, we use them raw and unembellished on salads, we melt them in slow-cooked sauces, and we add them as pops of texture in simple broths. We sing the praises of tomatoes by featuring them on the menu for as long as they come out of the fields. Customers have come to expect this bounty of tomatoes, this celebration of seasonality.

The American food scene is shifting, and we’re praising the restaurants that feature seasonal produce. Chefs are buying fruits and vegetables at the peak of their freshness and promoting them on their menus. Customers are beginning to get a feel for the cyclical dishes, the treats that they can look forward to. I love seeing a spring vegetable salad, a summer fruit tart, or a hearty fall soup. Eating seasonal produce is becoming more common in the modern food scene, and it is a return to a way Americans used to eat.

It’s easy to eat seasonally in the summer when there is such a bounty of produce. But now, as I open can after can of tomatoes in January, I’m wondering where our momentum ends. Eating seasonally does not involve only eating fruits and vegetables when they are bountiful in the fields. It also involves saving those bounties for the lean times. My grandmothers used to do something with their tomatoes, canning and pickling and mashing and preserving them for the winter. They did not just eat seasonally in the summer, but all year round. We used to preserve the bounty of one season to use it in the next.

Now, as we become used to eating fruits and vegetables in season again, what’s the next step? Do we return to preserving seasonal fruits and vegetables as well?

I think about the logistics. Let’s say a restaurant decides to process and can tomatoes, enough to get them through a winter. There are numerous organizational and financial difficulties that would pop up. Owners would need to have the flexible capital to make an investment in inventory months before making back their money. Preserving food is a specialty in the culinary realm, a specialty with miles of food safety regulation more than most. Restaurants would need to add more labor costs and more prep work, which would affect food costs and prices on the menu. The brick and mortar kitchen would need storage space for hundreds of pounds of canned tomatoes, stored at the right temperature to meet food safety standards. I don’t know many chefs from any sizable restaurant that could take on that burden, even for a single ingredient like tomatoes.

Then again, many chefs found it difficult to buy directly from farmers, at first, when the seasonal ethos started to creep into the restaurant industry. It was difficult to adjust the food chain, the new purveyor-chef relationship. And then people made adjustments. Middlemen came along, acting as warehouse or transportation intermediaries between small growers and busy chefs. Cooperatives started between farmers, allowing them to sell their small harvests as part of a bigger bulk sale. Chefs adjusted to the benefits and challenges of buying locally.

I can see the same potential for seasonal preserving. Perhaps middlemen will form another segment of the food chain, a purveyor that processes the food from farmers and then sells it to chefs. Farmers may form cooperatives and use shared kitchens to preserve food in the summer to sell in the winter. Chefs may adjust their menus to use frozen berries, canned tomatoes, and pickled radishes in the wintertime.

It’s not unlikely, and I already see talented and forward-thinking producers and chefs moving in this direction. The industry is shifting, as it always does. The way Americans eat is changing from many different angles and many different points of entry. Perhaps this is the next trend.

I’m hopeful. Because I don’t believe there is anything better than eating the tomatoes of August in the cold of January.

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