I am a tomato snob.
If they’re not real tomatoes — that is, if they don’t smell and taste like the tomatoes I ate as a kid from my mother’s 3-foot-by-5-foot garden in our Brooklyn backyard — I don’t want them. The perfectly formed, unblemished, bland, reddish-orangey blobs they sell in many supermarkets and offer up in salad bars are not tomatoes.They are some weird, tasteless thing pretending to be a berry (a tomato is actually a berry) that are being foisted upon people who don’t know what a real tomato tastes like and think this semi-colorful food filler is it.
I am a such a tomato snob that I have sent tomatoes back to the kitchen at restaurants. And it’s also why I insist that every year we plant tomatoes in our little backyard garden. Beefsteak. Ace. Best boy. Yellow pear. Different types of heirlooms. Love them all. Because summer isn’t summer until I’ve eaten bruschetta topped with the lovely ripe fruit from our garden that smells and tastes the way tomatoes should.
Why is it that blobs masquerading as tomatoes have ended up being the norm in the U.S.? I asked noted food writer Barry Estabrook, who wrote a book last year called Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
I was amazed — and appalled — at what he had to say about modern agribusiness and the tomato. It’s not pretty.
Thanks to politics and business machinations, Florida, with about as inhospitable a climate and soil composition for tomatoes as you can find, now accounts for one-third of fresh so-called tomatoes raised in the U.S. The Sunshine State, writes Estabrook, ships more than one billion pounds of them in the U.S., Canada and other countries every year.
And most of those are picked by laborers who are little more than modern-day slaves —with no benefits, living in squalid housing, beaten, and “locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards,” Estabrook writes in his book. They’re paid by the “piece” for every bushel-sized basket they gather, needing to pick ten or so bushel-size buckets an hour to earn the hourly minimum wage in Florida of $7.25. Few workers, though, can make enough to rise above the poverty level because while they have to be on call every day to pick, they can't pick if it's raining and have to wait around waiting for the vines, covered in dew, to dry before they can pick. They also don't get paid for the hours in travel time on the crew boss' bus to and from the fields, he said.
Those Florida tomatoes (I call them flomatoes) are not bred for taste, but are genetically engineered so they can be transported without getting bruised along the way. “Most Florida tomatoes are bred for hardness, picked when still firm and green (the merest trace of pink is taboo), and artificially gassed with ethylene in warehouses until they acquire the rosy-red skin tones of a ripe tomato,” Estabrook writes. He talks about how he was following behind a truck overflowing with just-picked green flomatoes in Florida — “so identical they could have been stamped out by a machine” — and how dozens hit the asphalt after falling 10 feet at 60-miles an hour. Not a single one smashed.
A Collective Dumbing Down
The end result, Estabrook tells me in an interview, is that in two generations, we’ve gone from local growers supplying the tasty, but perhaps blemished and funnily shaped tomatoes enjoyed by our grandparents and parents to a modern industry, built around slavery and doing all sorts of things that are not good for the environment, to produce a billion pounds of tastleless orbs.
“We’ve sort of lost our food knowledge or the level of food literacy our grandparents and parents had,” Estabrook says, speaking from his home in Vermont. “We see a red thing in the supermarket and we think it’s a tomato...It’s been a collective dumbing down.”
So what does he suggest? “My basic feeling is that if you want a truly good tomato, the closer it’s grown to your kitchen counter the better it’s going to be,” he says. “The best tasting stuff is not raised in these industrial conditions" and not picked by slaves.
He encourages everyone to stop buying flomatoes and plant your own, even if it’s just one or two planters. Or buy your tomatoes from local or regional farmers, who can then build sustainable businesses. In his book, he tells the story of Eckerton Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, which supplies farmers' markets. Owner Tim Stark employs about 15 people almost year round and pays them a living wage of $10 to $15 an hour, offers free housing, a year-end bonus and workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. Half of those workers are former Florida slaves, Estabrook says. “Multiply him by 7,000 farmers' markets and you can support a whole lot of jobs.”
Estabrook also likes my idea of sending tomatoes back at restaurants because this is really an industry that can be changed by consumers snubbing what passes for tomatoes and demanding a higher-quality product. How much of a taste difference are we talking about? Eat a real tomato and see for yourself. “Once they taste a real tomato, all of a sudden they know what they’re missing,” he says.
Here in California, we put in our tomato plants in March and they’re ready to harvest in late July. Estabrook says he plants tomatoes in his garden in Vermont sometime within the first 10 days of June, with the harvest coming in August and continuing into September. It’s not too late to go out and pick up a tomato plant and get yours growing as well.
There is a small, but growing movement afoot in the U.S. by folks who are demanding better quality food, though Estabrook admits those clued into sustainability are still a “tiny, tiny” part of the population. The good news is that we can change things, even if it’s just one tomato at a time. — CG
Bruschetta with Tomato Salad
Note: These are basic guidelines for how to make this tomato salad. I’m not sure on exact measurements because I usually just toss things in and taste them. So don’t be afraid to experiment with more onion or basil. When it comes to the dressing, it’s three-parts olive oil for every part balsamic vinegar.
• 3-4 really good tomatoes, sliced or chopped (This can be a colorful mix of whatever you have on hand. I like to throw in some yellow pear tomatoes for the contrast with big red ones, but it’s really all about starting with really great tomatoes.)
• 3-4 fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
• About 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
• 2-3 tablespoons of Trader Joe's Gold Quality Balsamic Vinegar
*I’m also a balsamic vinegar snob. I’ve tried and tossed out many, many bottles of balsamic vinegar before settling on this one from Trader Joe's ($3.99 for a bottle). It’s got the right level of sweetness for me so that’s why I heartily recommend it. If you can't find it, pick your favorite high-quality balsamic vinegar.
• 3-4 tablespoons red onion, chopped
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 loaf of French or Italian bread, sliced (1/4 inch slices). You can slice and serve fresh, or, if you like a little bit of crunch, drizzle with olive oil and place on a baking sheet for 5 to 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven to toast.
Mix everything together, sprinkle with pepper, and then refrigerate for about half an hour. Serve on top of the sliced bread. Enjoy!
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Photo courtesy of flickr user eyeweed