For most of the country, the dawning of the tomato season is upon us. Proud backyard gardeners are strolling out to their tomato plants to find the beginnings of red globes and heirloom varieties signaling a healthy spring investment, and a promised August payoff (providing insects and fungus remain at bay). And farmer’s markets are showing off some of the early tomatoes and selling them fast as people could say “gazpacho” or “salsa.” But as novel as the appearance of fresh grown summer tomatoes may be for some of us, tomatoes have become a year round mainstay in supermarkets around the country. In fact, walk into a Wal-Mart or any major grocery chain in the dead of winter and you will find impressively red and robust tomatoes piled nose-high and being sold for a reasonable price. So why get so excited about these rarified summer tomatoes when we have something approximately as striking in January as we do in July? Because these year round tomatoes are simply just approximations, and inferior ones at that, of the garden-variety tomatoes that we so covet.
Actually the tomatoes we buy between the months of October and June, most likely came from Florida, the largest industrial tomato growing region in the U.S, and these tomatoes are bred to be perfectly formed and transit hearty enough to find their way into your grocery cart without even a blemish or a bruise. But how do they taste? The answer is they taste pretty awful – less like a tomato and more like a tennis ball with some water content.
In Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, author Barry Estabrook makes sense of our contemporary tomato culture and reveals a less than sustainable, less than desirable, and less than delicious product that is fueled by our unyielding desire for tomato-like objects year round. “For the last 50 or more years, tomato breeders have concentrated essentially on one thing and that is yield — they want plants that yield as many or as much as possible,” writer Barry Estabrook tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “They also want those fruits to be able to stand up to being harvested, packed, artificially turned orange [with ethylene gas] and then shipped away and still be holding together in the supermarket a week or 10 days later.” The result is a tasteless tomato from a high yield crop grown with an assortment of pesticides fertilizers and fungicides in a climate unsuitable for such agriculture.
While this substandard product could easily be thought of as the tragic end to this cycle of supply and demand, there are worse byproducts of this industry, according to Estabrook. “Of the legal jobs available, picking tomatoes is at the very bottom of the economic ladder. I came into this book chronicling a case of slavery in southwestern Florida that came to light in 2007 and 2008. And it was shocking. I’m not talking about near-slavery or slavery-like conditions. I’m talking about abject slavery.” Estabrook goes on to document workers being shackled in chains, being beaten for either not working hard enough, fast enough, or being too weak or sick to work. It sounds outlandish, but it is unfortunately well documented and painfully true – all for that essential component of a BLT in the middle of February.
Whether this information motivates you to eat tomatoes seasonally, and not from some tomato plantation in Florida, is your choice. However, I urge you to check out Tomatoland to gain access to a world, and a product, that reveals as much about us as consumers, as it does about those tasteless red orbs we call tomatoes 9 months out of the year.