As tomato season draws to a close and the last remaining boxes are being surmised to determine who stays and who is sentenced to the saucepot, there is, it seems to me, a debate on exactly what makes a tomato worth saving.
Many, perhaps even most, will say that sweetness is the prized quality to seek. Admittedly, a sweet, juicy, sugary, summer burst of tomato in your mouth is an experience worth closing your eyes for. Sweet tomatoes can be enjoyed in many forms, and pair greatly with so very many different foods; moreover, cooking them only makes them better.
However, when dealing with raw or semi-cooked tomatoes, my hands are feeling for firmness before I start checking for sweetness. Running your fingers gingerly over the surface of the fruit, exploring dimples and assessing softness, paying attention to how much she gives when you squeeze her tenderly, gently, you allow your sense of touch to guide you.
You can even close your eyes as your hands examine the summer fruits, picture them red and orange and yellow and fat and plump and glossy, hanging in the sunshine like juicy jewels that you just want to sink your teeth into and hang from, juice running down your chin.
And if you can find the firm ones and slice 'em nice and thick, maybe a slab of buffalo mozzarella, its milky water being absorbed into the tomato steak, some sea salt facilitating the intimate transfer of juices between the supple flesh of the cheese and the firm meat of the tomato below it. One bite of that, when it's just right, and you just want to crawl right in between the two and live there.
But here's the rub: which quality is more important to look for in the tomato? In this, the most important (in this eater's opinion) of tomato tests, what do you need more? Does the mozzarella test demand Sweetness or Firmness? Naturally, the perfect answer is that you get maximum quality in both departments. And in the prime of summer, you can pull that off with little difficulty. But remember, this is early October and the last of the tomatoes have come in, thanks to some rain. You're dealing with the dregs.
So what do you look for? Do you sacrifice firmness for sweetness, suffer a bite that is softer, maybe bordering on mushy, in order to get that sugar rush, that last taste of summer nectar on your tongue and tastebuds? Or do you choose with your hands and get that perfect, beautiful fruit that gives when you cut into it while providing just enough resistance to make you work the tiniest bit for your succulent bite? Sweetness or firmness? Tomato or toe-mah-toe?
For my money, the fruit has gotta be worth the squeeze. If it's not holding up to my bite, odds are I'm not holding it up to my mouth. Not to say I'll turn down food if you offer it to me; I don't typically do that. But if I have to pick a side, I'm picking a side I can grab onto without it turning to mush between my fingers. It's gotta. Be. Firm.