AUSTIN, TEXAS — FRAN CLOVES navigates her cart to the shelves of tomatoes at the trendy Central Market grocery in Austin, Texas. She finds the expected cherry, Roma, and regular varieties, reinforced by exotic red teardrop and yellow tomatoes. There are ``home-growns'' from Texas, organics from California, and gourmet specimens from Florida. Prices range from a mouth-watering 69 cents a pound to a hunger-busting $3.69.
Ms. Cloves says she disregards price and relies on smell and feel. Many of the juicy vegetables pass inspection and wind up in her cart.
``I love tomatoes,'' Cloves explains. ``I'm the tomato queen.''
If so, the tomato-eating public is one large royal family. Last year, Americans consumed a fresh-weight-equivalent average per mouth of 92 pounds of Big Boy, Jack Pot, Casino Royale, and other varieties, although usually in processed form, the United States Department of Agriculture reports. Americans' Tomato Passion Endures
USDA data confirms that tomatoes have followed potatoes as the most-demanded vegetable at the dinner table for two decades. The department's crop specialists say they suspect that tomatoes achieved that status as far back as the 1930s.
(There's no use arguing that the tomato is actually a fruit. Someone did in 1893, all the way to the US Supreme Court. True, the tomato resembles a fruit in that it is the ripened ovary of a seed plant. But the high court sided with custom over biology. Tomatoes are eaten as a main or side dish and not as a dessert, the majority of justices opined in ruling for the vegetable classification.)
Government consumption statistics count only those tomatoes sold through major commercial channels. Sales by farmers' markets aren't tabulated. Nor are homegrown volumes estimated.
At Sledd Nursery in downtown Austin, fall gardeners find no heat-resistant Sure-Fire tomato seedlings nor any other variety in current stock because of brisk sales. ``Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable to be grown around here,'' a clerk explains.
``The size of the whole market is probably bigger than we think,'' says Charles Plummer, a USDA vegetable commodity specialist.
Each generation of Americans seems to find a new use for tomatoes that becomes a kitchen classic: ketchup in the 1870s, tomato juice in the 1920s, pizza sauce in the '60s, chili sauce in the '70s, and salsa in the '90s.
Tomato-based foods continue to rise in popularity. Pizza consumption has tripled since the late '70s, the USDA notes. Look no further than the White House, where President Clinton's aides order one-third or more pizza than the Bush administration did, the Domino's chain calculates.
In fact, Americans eat more than four-fifths of their tomatoes in processed form. Last year, just 16 pounds per capita were eaten fresh, according to the USDA.
The American passion for tomatoes and tomato products earned $1.7 billion last year for 14,000 US farmers. California supplies almost all the tomatoes destined for processing, growing sturdy varieties that can stand up to machine harvesters. Florida leads in production of fresh tomatoes, all of which are hand-picked. Fresh tomatoes accounted for two-thirds of farmers' tomato income, even though they accounted for less than one-quarter of production.
This year, American farmers are cultivating more than 440,000 acres of tomatoes. Output may reach the record of 11 million tons set in 1991. With 16 percent of global output, the US - indeed, California alone - is the champeen tomato grower of the world.
The US is not self-sufficient, however. It is a net importer of tomatoes, although the seasonality of production has the country importing heavily from Mexico at times and exporting as far as Sri Lanka at other times.
Last year, the US obtained almost all its imported tomatoes from Mexico - 20 times what it exported back. But the gap has been narrowing in recent years. That trend could receive a gradual assist from the North America Free Trade Agreement, which is phasing out tariffs and quotas.
Commerce is all well and good, but what about the oft-criticized taste of commercially grown tomatoes? Mark Henson is not the kind of assistant produce manager to leave a reporter in doubt. He whips open a pocket knife and carves off slices from Central Market's display of vine-ripened tomatoes.
Results: Texas-grown Desert Glory (99 cents/lb.) are acceptable. The ``homegrown'' tomatoes (99 cents), actually from a small farm west of Austin, are better. The California organics ($3.69) merely equal the ``homegrowns.'' Lee's of Florida ($1.59) taste the best for the money.
Cloves, whose dog defeated an attempt to raise her own tomatoes, sighs: ``There's nothing like home-grown.''