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Tomatoes from J&F Farms in Derry fill a table Tuesday afternoon.

DERRY | The perfect tomato grows on your patio or in your backyard garden or in a nearby farmer's field but belongs in your mouth.

Fresh and native is best, shoppers and growers said in a recent survey of tomato tastes.

And the way to eat the summer staple is to pick, slice and season, they said.

Donna MacDonald of Derry said the best tomatoes she's ever eaten came fresh from her father's vine, some fresh basil and a little salt on them.

"You just pick it and eat it," she said on a bright late afternoon at J and F Farms in Derry, summer edging to fall, a killing frost looming in the coming weeks.

Nada Haddad, an agriculture educator at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, prefers heirloom varieties from her backyard garden.

"Eat it immediately," she said. Haddad slices them on a plate. Sprinkles parsley and mint and drizzles olive oil. "Mmmmmm."

Claudette Kilby of Derry serves them fresh with vinegar.

"Just ripe enough but not too ripe," Kilby said.

University of New Hampshire plant biologist and tomato breeder Brent Loy bears out the Derry women's observation.

Tomatoes are difficult to ship, he said. It wasn't long ago that southern growers would pick them green and hard as rocks before shipping them to the northern market.

The transported varieties just aren't as good as native grown tomatoes to Loy's tastes, based primarily on a balance of acids and sugars.

He serves his family slicers, palm-sized tomatoes, cut in cross sections.

"Put out a plate of sliced tomatoes and eat them like you would eat a steak," he said.

To Gina Murphy, a family farmer are J and F, the imperfect tomato is perfect.

Murphy grades the field tomatoes and eats the seconds or rejects, the cracked. bruised and odd-shaped tomatoes.

"But they are the best tasting. they are sweet and juicy because they are so ripe," she said, standing by the farm market's 1,500 of the round red fruit spread stem-down on a white table, an old-fashion scale in the middle of the table. The late-season varieties included Mountain Fresh and Sunbeam.

While the native tomatoes won't be clinging to vines much longer, they are still available and should be easy to find. They are second only to native corn in consumer demand at farm stands, Loy said. Grocery stores carry them, as well.

Like opera and baseball, the tomato has its fans and foes. Murphy's niece, Amanda Ferdinando, sings no praises of the red and round fruit. She pulls them from salads and sandwiches. Always has. Maybe its the seeds, she said.

But for those for whom the tomato holds sway, even the thought of the fruit inspires pleasant childhood memories. MacDonald remembers stopping at roadside farm stands while travelling with her parents as a child in Pennsylvania. Farmers would hold a tomato between their hands like a snowball and break it cleanly in half to offer customers a taste. To this day she doesn't know if the tomatoes were precut and the farmer's twist a stunt.

Some claim the tomato prolongs life.

Kilby said she grew up in an Italian family and they put tomatoes in everything.

"My aunts are all in the nineties," she said.

MacDonald said her grandmother, a tomato lover, lived to 100.

"So there must be some truth to that," Kilby said to MacDonald.

And even if the fruit doesn't spur longevity it inspires appetites.

"This time of year I live on tomato sandwiches," Murphy said.

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