In my recent pile of wonders which arrive by mail, I got something from one of my faves, Andrews McMeel. For the first time ever, it is actually a monograph rather than a cookbook (they do dandy dandy cookbooks). And yes, it is called Tomatoland. Written by Barry Estabrook, the book is subtitled How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit and, yes, like many such tomes, Estabrook's take emphasizes the many ways the tomato has been both detroyed -- and is destructive. The tales of labor laws in Florida are horrifying, and I have only begun the book. It was published in 2011.
What inspired the author? Well, he begins the book with an explanation of how, one fine day, he was driving along in Florida and . . . green tomatoes were flying out of a truck ahead of him, hitting the cement, and -- despite the impact, they seemed fine. No, this is not Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe at all. Nor is the truck pictured above the truck involved, as this one is filled with RED tomatos. Unusual, I think, at least based on this book-- or perhaps in California (yep, just checked the website from which it came, countyofkings.com which is, indeed, a county in California). I guessed this because i have been reading Tomatoland and learned, as you will below, CA tomatoes are in a different situation than Florida. While what follows is actually not from the prettiest book from Andres McMeel, it is definitely worth the read because it is important. For all of us who are tired of the lousy taste of tomatoes in most months, well, that's not all we should be bothered by. Of course, Estabrook is well known for his expose on the abuses of workers in Florida tomato production in Gourmet; his is not the only voice on the politics and problems of tomato production. See e.g., here (where the issue is the water usage in Mexican tomato production and its impact broadly) or here (where you can find out about California tomato racketeering. Who knew?). But, his is a key voice.
Of course, Florida is not the only place where tomatoes are grown. Of course not. There is your backyard and all over upstate New York and, of course California. The main difference between the Florida and California tomato industries -- and that is what they are -- is that California's is primarily for processed/canned tomatoes whereas those hard little red balls in the winter are . . . . snowbird?. No: Floridian (is that a word?) tomatoes. The main issue seems to be that tomatoes really ought not be grown in sand -- which is all Florida is. Hence, the amazing amount of fertilizer and pesticides - an amount that makes California agri-business look reasonable (which quite definitely is not Estabrook's point).
So, yes, if you thought meat and chicken factory farming was horrible, this is too. If you thought reading The Jungle put you off food because of the meat packing world and that drove you to vegetarianism, think again. There is no real moral/ethical safety in vegetarianism -- or veganism even. And this is especially the case as the tomato, for example, has less and less nutrients and is more and more . . . . well. . . . dare I say it? Dangerous. We have to stop this somehow. We do. And perhaps most crucially, we have to find a way to treat workers humanely. I mean really -- what was all that work and warfare for in the 19th century intended to abolish slavery -- when this book makes it quite evident that slavery -- and I do not mean metaphorically or slave-like conditions -- continues to exist in the United States. Think about that when you buy a tomato.
(Thanks to foodfirst.org for the picture). Yes, there is resistance. Law suits and more. For a reminder of how to work against this, see this site which is a coalition of workers in one of the areas Estabrook focuses upon, the group represented in the picture above.
Of course, the politics of industrial farming is not all there is to the book. I also found the initial parts about the history/wild tomatoes of Peru, which live in desert conditions and also some of its relatives (or related species?) which look great and taste -- well, awful -- quite enlightening. Also, there is some interesting material on the migration of the tomato to Mexico and in the Columbia exchange. And, the ways science is engaged in all this is very intriguing -- not to mention the education industrial complex with its centers for this and that, funded, in many cases, by the industry itself. One of the most fascinating aspects is the many ways scientists (many using quite old fashioned techniques) are trying to "improve" the tomato, aka bring back tasty and personality to what is now an incredibly bland product. And yes, and perhaps he most important, in addition to the organization noted above, Estabrook attends to other signs of hope, including an organic tomato farmer in Florida -- something peope said could not be done -- who has also moved well beyond piece work i paying his workers. Hurrah. Hope.
While Estabrook is not the best writer ever, I actually like his mix of chatty tone, and atonished outrage. It makes for a highly readable book, even though occasionally it seems strained and hard to sustain.Not to mention making me yearn for the good old days, when my father made fried tomatoes (in his case they were not green) and they tasted like tomatoes. They really did.
For reviews of Tomatoland when it first came out, try here or here. For more on the rights of workers and related matters, see this piece by Mark Bittman and this from the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, think this is not occurring in your state/ Think again. And check out your plate as well.
Yep, on a moralistic entreprenurial tantrum. No clue what I will do -- except make sure to make more tomato sauce and things this summer for use rather than support this industry. What else? Ideas?