Paul Greenberg

Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes,
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can't buy -
That's true love and homegrown tomatoes . . .
-Guy Clark

Like a Frenchman waiting for the first Beaujolais of the season to arrive from southern Burgundy, aficionados have started to sample the first, early bounty of southeastern Arkansas this time of year: not yet full-bodied but maturing, rosy-hued but pink if held up to the light just right, not quite astringent but a little puckerish, ordinary but their presumption will amuse, personally planted and tended and harvested but God-produced tomatoes.

The official season didn't begin until last weekend's festival at little but storied Warren, Ark., known to an elite band of connoisseurs as the tomato capital of the world. This was the 52nd anniversary of the Pink Tomato Festival, and word was there hasn't been a better-tasting year for the true fruit of the vine: the incomparable Bradley County Pink, as succulent to the taste as it is ugly to the eye. That's the rule with this rare species of tomato in these knowing parts: The worse they look, the better they taste.

The different, thoroughly commercialized products called tomatoes in this country have been scientifically developed to be shipped long distances and still look, but only look, good. Nothing else counts: taste, aroma, feel - in short, just about everything that makes a tomato a tomato. Or used to.

In some respects, like diet, returning to the past would be progress. Just look at what the statistics say are some of he country's biggest health problems: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes - all linked to diet.

But I come here not to prescribe the tomato but to celebrate it. An honest-to-goodness tomato is the best of both worlds, culinary and medicinal. People really ought to toast Salud! Na zdorovye! To Your Health! over a vintage 2008 Bradley County pink the way they do over a choice Australian shiraz.

In another example of Gresham's Law in awful action, the best of tomatoes has been reduced to a rarity that has to be smuggled out of little ol' Warren, Ark., like bootleg hooch. It says something about how poor in taste this rich country is that the Bradley County Pink should be almost a secret beyond the borders of Arkansas, aka the Natural State.

I hope I'm not revealing any state secret when I note that the best, freshest Arkansas tomatoes - like the Bradley County Pink and Amelia - explain the remarkable air of promise in our children, the beauty of our women, the virility of our men. All are brought out, like the blush of the tomato, in the ripening fullness of time.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.