Had I a spare million or two lying around, I would endow the Prize For Development Of An Edible Supermarket Tomato.

It is one of the perplexities of the age that we sent men to the moon and brought them back (with far less sophisticated computers and microcircuits than available now); we can communicate almost instantly with anyone worldwide; we've developed all sorts of technological goodies to make life more livable, but… it's seemingly impossible to get a decent tomato in the supermarket.

Even in summertime, when garden-fresh tomatoes should be abundant across most of the Sunbelt, the produce bins offer the same hard, mealy, pulled-green-and-gassed, tasteless excuse-for-tomatoes that we get in winter (there must be a secret factory somewhere, churning ‘em out by the millions). One might as well eat the cardboard they're packed in.

As a youngster, growing up in small-town north Mississippi in an era when everyone had a garden, one of the pleasures of summer was to pick a red, ripe tomato, warm from the sun, and eat it right there, juice dripping down my shirt. And a lunchtime plate of blackeyed peas, cornbread, fried chicken, creamed corn, and string beans was made all the more perfectly delicious by more of those garden-ripe tomatoes, sliced and ever so lightly salted.

Even if one didn't grow one's own vegetables (and I suppose there were some folks who didn't), it was but a short ways to the courthouse square, where farmers came and parked with pickup loads of vegetables, watermelons, cantaloupes, peaches — all stuff they'd personally grown and could vouch for. Every small town had the same daily farmer's market.

Now, those same small towns have banned parking from courthouse squares, but it doesn't matter anyway because farmers no longer want to fool with stuff like that. And the so-called “farmer's markets” one happens across these days — ironically, mostly in big cities — are little better than the supermarkets. The majority of the stuff wasn't grown by the people offering it; most of it they bought through a wholesale supplier and are reselling it, including the same hard, mealy, tasteless tomatoes turned out by the millions in a secret factory somewhere.

A few years ago, driving along out in the boonies, back side of nowhere, I saw a guy sitting by the side of the road, under a huge oak tree, battered pickup full of tomatoes. It was late spring and, I knew, too early for garden tomatoes. Maybe he's got a greenhouse somewhere back of the treeline, I thought as I stopped.

We howdyed. “Bit early for tomatoes,” I said. “Where'd you grow ‘em?”

“Didn't. Just drove over and got ‘em at the wholesale,” he said. Yep, straight from the secret factory.

Every year, foolishly, I plant half a dozen tomatoes back of the garage, knowing full well that in the horrid gumbo clay soil, with all the diseases and insects of the Delta, they will produce zilch. Which they do. This year, all died. Not a single ‘mater.

A decent store-bought tomato. Surely that's not too much to ask.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.