Are Ohio Tomatoes Really the Best?

In the public mind, Ohio is not ubiquitous with tomatoes. You don’t read heartfelt odes to Ohio tomatoes in Saveur or see them on the menu in some Wagnerian dining experience at Alinea. This lack of attention from the non-Ohio world makes Ohio tomatoes the country’s biggest secret amazing food. Here, it’s a given. Tomatoes are the state fruit.

Ohio is not keeping these tomatoes secret on purpose, mind you. I didn’t even care about them myself until I moved out of the state; as a girl, I recall the South Carolina friends we vacationed with every year raving about the cardboard box of homegrown tomatoes we brought down to the beach house. “Ohio tomatoes!” they’d sigh, and it baffled my youthful mind that people who lived within spitting distance of a wonderful beach and wild-caught shrimp could crave anything from my humble home. I didn't become a tomato convert until I grew up and moved across the country to the San Francisco Bay Area, where gem-like heirlooms of every shade were bountiful at markets and grocery stores. I bought them and enjoyed them, but they didn't make me dizzy like the unassuming red globes I savored on visits back to Ohio. Scarcity leads to mystique. There is no Ohio tomato like an Ohio tomato in the palm of a expat Ohioan. 

I should clarify that the biggest, most pulsing fists of tomatoey lusciousness hail from the dense red clay of the Mid-Ohio Valley, in the southeast corner of the state. Nothing against heirloom tomatoes, but the ultimate Ohio tomato is just a run-of-the-mill beefsteak, red, shiny, and perhaps a bit knobby and misshapen. They grow in family gardens and the fields of tiny family farms all along the river, baked under the summer sun and bathed in thick humidity.

Any homegrown tomato is a treat, but the (admittedly lovely) tomatoes I grew in my various Oregon backyards just didn’t measure up. I’d like to ask a horticulturalist why, scientifically speaking, Ohio tomatoes dazzle so—is it soil pH? chemicals from the industrial plants downriver?—but I’m afraid the truth will disappoint.  Maybe my fine Oregon tomatoes would have stood up in a blind tasting to their Ohio counterparts, and it was really just a vanished summer idyll I was yearning for.

It’s August, and all over town, the inimitable smell of tomato leaves withering in the heat betrays no hint of the acidic sweetness and almost buttery flesh to come. I’ve been eating enough to give myself an ulcer: thick raw slices on a plate, more substantial than any filet mignon. Neighbors gave them to me; I give mine to friends. Summer will vanish, and Ohio will get boring and shitty again, and so we all dive into the intoxicating cosmos of seeds and pulp our precious tomatoes offer us in this eternal now.

Mid-Ohio Valley Summer No-Cook Tomato Sauce

Serves 4-6

Get one 12-ounce package of eggy Rossi Pasta Capelli d'Angelo. This can be purchased at their gift shop on Front Street in Marietta, or at any one of a handful of grocery stores. When I was 20, I worked at Rossi Pasta making gift baskets, and I got a lot of free pasta, and pasts tastes best when it’s free. In lieu of Rossi Pasta (free or not), use 8 ounces of ordinary dried angel hair pasta.

 Next, procure about one and a half pounds of quite ripe, very red homegrown tomatoes—beefsteak or the likes, and luscious enough to eat a plain slice of as if it were cake. Maybe you grew them yourself, maybe your best friend’s parents left a bag of them on your back porch like the tomato fairy. These tomatoes should be at the stage of ripeness that’s just before squishy. At least half an hour and up to two hours before planning to eat, chop them up (on a cutting board with a groove if you don’t want to make a swampy red mess of tomato juice). Put these chunks in a large bowl, along with a pinch of red pepper flakes, a large clove of garlic that’s been mashed to a paste, and a generous amount of kosher salt. If you have fresh oregano around, mince up about a teaspoon of that and add it. If not, no big deal. Let this all sit at room temperature; the salt will work on the tomatoes and make a soupy, saucy mess.

Boil the pasta according to the directions on the Rossi Pasta package. And drain the pasta, and although I normally would reserve some of the pasta cooking water, we’re not going to do that now, because we want the pasta to absorb the very liquid part of our splendid tomato sauce so that every bite offers an explosion of summery tomato flavor.

Return the pasta to the pot you cooked it in. Add the tomato sauce, along with a few tablespoons of very good olive oil and a big fat handful of thinly sliced fresh basil. You need lots of basil, which will collapse in the heat of the dish and wind up not looking like nearly as much as you began with. Taste this and add salt or whatever to make it taste right.

Divide the pasta between big bowls and top with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Feta or soft goat cheese would also be acceptable, but I like the parm. Then dig in. That’s it.

This recipe absolutely will not work in parts of the country with crummy tomatoes, or after late September, or if you use the wrong shape or type of pasta; the network of angel hair pasta strands lock in the sauce like a sponge so you don't miss a drop of flavor. This also will not be quite as good if you consume it in a location other than my parent’s screened-in back porch, where an unseen chorus of cicadas drone in the background, to a mesmerizingly creepy, jungle-y effect. But if you get all of the variables right, your dinner will be like a big plate of adult candy. No salad, no bread. Just the pasta, maybe a glass of white wine. Amen.