Have you stopped eating tomatoes in February yet? Have you abandoned all supermarket tomatoes? Do you know they taste like tennis balls, but buy them anyway? If you haven’t been thinking along these lines, read Tomatoland—it will have you running to the nearest farmers’ market.
Birth defects, environmental consequences, and a disturbing lack of nutrition and flavor are the result of science, economics, and politic that Estabrook traces in his book, expanded from a Gourmet magazine article, “The Price of Tomatoes.”
It’s the produce equivalent of The Jungle, more depressing proof that we’ve turned food into product in the name of profit.
Estabrook recounts some of the history you might know—they were considered poisonous, started as tiny berries that became domesticated, and were used for medicine. But he goes further to uncover botanist Alexander Livingston who cross- bred plants to develop the Paragon, a “uniformly smooth tomato” that he credited with starting one of the “great enterprises of this country,” mass produced tomatoes. Florida farmers began growing green, cheap, and off-season fruit as early as 1870, still the standard of the tomato industry.
Florida provides one third of America’s fresh tomatoes, overseen by the Florida Tomato Committee, which has no standards for flavor, but plenty for handling, containers, and inspection.
And the irony, points out Estabrook, is that in Florida, tomatoes are a barely viable crop. They require expenditures on fuel, pesticides, and fertilizer. To keep them market competitive, piece-work pickers wages haven’t gone up in 30 years. Florida law enforcement has successfully prosectuted seven major slavery cases in the last 15 years. That juicy BLT is suddenly a real problem.
In fact, Estabrook quotes Douglas Molloy, a U.S. attorney for Florida’s Middle District, who says that if you’ve eaten one of those tennis ball tomatoes, it has been picked by the hands of a slave, a strong but accurate word. The industry relies on convict lease and debt peonage, and farm workers have been manacled and imprisoned to keep them from filing complaints about unfair and unsafe practices.
As Estabrook continues recounting grisly stories of beatings, court cases, intimidation, and exploitation, those flavorless tomatoes take on a bitter aftertaste.
By way of contrast, Estabrook describes the upstate New York farm of “Tomatoman” Tim Stark. Rather than being treated as picking machines, his workers use their intellignce and initiative to keep the farm running. And his misshapen and oddly colored tomatoes, with names like Black Seaman, Green Zebra, and Purple Calabash.
Stark is a niche marketer, selling to restaurants and chefs you have heard of. He’ll never sell to McDonald’s, but that’s just as well, it’s not real food either.