The Price Is Right

Even those who ought to know better don't necessarily. I saw this year's first crop of Red Cardinal's tangerine-colored Sun Gold cherry tomatoes--exquisite little mouthfuls of lively, acidic zip--at the Wedge Co-op in Uptown. As I reached for one of the $3.29 pints, an employee pointed out a different variety of organic cherry tomatoes, grown in California, that were priced at 30 cents less. "I prefer to buy local," I sputtered, and proceeded to work myself into a fine froth. California cherry tomatoes are picked before fully ripening on the vine; California cherry tomatoes aren't that-day fresh; California cherry tomatoes aren't supporting Minnesota farmers, Minnesota barn owls, and little Minnesota microbes in the Minnesota dirt.

In fact, says Barb Tholin, produce manager at the Selby-Dale Mississippi Market, those lower prices on trucked-in tomatoes are no coincidence: "California [organic] produce is becoming more and more of a commodity," she explains. "These big farms can afford to play the market. They know full well that there's local product on the market in the summer, so they drop prices below cost for a month or two to keep local farmers out of the game. Then they raise their prices in the winter when they know there's no competition." So not only does buying California organic produce do nothing for our farmers and barn owls--it may actually help drive them out of business.

Yet I don't know if any of this would matter much if those Red Cardinal tomatoes weren't so delicious. Lucia Watson, the celebrated chef and owner of Lucia's in Uptown, says the farm's crop is one of her chief summer delights: "For one thing, you get them within hours of their being in the sunshine. That makes them amazing. They're juicy, they have flavor, they're sweet, and aesthetically, they're just gorgeous. The flavor is so pure, it surprises you.

Craig Lassig

"My policy is that your food is only as good as your primary ingredients--so if we spend more on fabulous tomatoes, then we don't need to spend more on things to embellish them. It's just like at home: If you spend intelligently you can serve a really high-quality product and still keep your overall food costs where you want them." Which is to say that with a shudderingly good tomato, you don't need to throw around a lot of truffles or Roquefort.

The night of my tomato-dazzled visit to Mississippi Market, I set out a dinner banquet of five-dollar tomatoes (well, to be truthful, only the outrageous German Striped was that expensive). I put them on a cutting board with a good loaf of bread, and the ensemble looked like a Dutch still life or one of those irritating spreads in a foodie magazine; usually it takes me hours to achieve anything so picturesque. A friend and I dined on nothing but tomatoes and bread with a bit of olive oil, the smallest drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and occasional forays into salt and pepper. Unlikely though it sounds, fruity and food-critic-ish though it be, it was honestly better than a dozen chef-cooked dinners I've had out this summer--and quite a bit cheaper.

Red Cardinal Farms tomatoes are also available at Mississippi Market's original location, 1810 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, (651) 690-0507, and the Wedge Co-op, 2105 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, (612) 871-3993. For information on joining the Red Cardinal community-supported agriculture project, visit the farm's Web site: www.redcardinalfarm.com.

 

TABLEHOPPING:

JESSICA RABBIT? FAWN Hall? Or...? Was it Gore Vidal who said, "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television?" Well, apparently, neither do I. Or at least, I never miss a chance to appear on television. That last bit is more than you need to know. How could you bring that up in public? Pervert. Where was I? Oh yeah, so anyway, you can see me now, every Wednesday morning in the last half-hour of Good Day, Minnesota, the new morning news show on KMSP (Channel 9) which, starting this week, will run Monday through Friday from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. Will this finally answer the question as to what I really look like? I hope not, since I'm appearing in a full, exorbitant disguise--do I look like Jessica Rabbit? Wynonna Judd? A sock puppet? You be the judge. Whatever you decide, it definitely was David Frost who said: "Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home." Ready or not, here I come.

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