If you live in the Northeast, or were raised here, there’s a decent chance that you’ve experienced, at least once, the exquisite pleasure of biting into a just-picked garden tomato. In the suburbs and rural areas of Northwest New Jersey, where I live, backyards are peppered with staked tomato plants growing from the ground, and every fourth patio seems to be hung with Topsy-Turvy planters lush with greens and ripening tomatoes. We’re no exception, watching our somewhat late-planted cherry tomato plants for hints of red as our currently pea-sized green fruits grow and develop. When we spent time at our friends’ house this weekend three towns away, their five year old eagerly harvested everything that could pass for ripe from their backyard garden, then ran his handful over to us to show them off.
There’s a big difference between these garden delights and the shiny, thick-skinned orange-to-red orbs we’re used to picking up at the supermarket when our own tomatoes go out of season. I knew this had to do with the fact that these Florida tomatoes were ‘off-season,’ and I didn’t give it a second thought. By the time I was a page or two into Barry Estabrook’s new book, Tomatoland, though, I was having a lot of second thoughts. About a lot of things, all worth thinking about.
Tomatoland is an expansion of a James Beard Award-winning article Estabrook originally wrote for Gourmet Magazine, for which he was a contributing editor before the magazine folded. The book is at once a meandering survey of tomato history, and a detailed expose’ of the modern Florida tomato industry.
Early on, Estabrook takes readers through rural Peru on a hunt for the modern tomato’s tenacious forebears, then follows the tomato through to its place on the modern American plate. But much of the book is a harsh indictment of the Florida tomato industry, led by the Florida Tomato Council. Readers learn that the indestructible ‘off season’ Florida tomatoes we find in our supermarkets from October through June are unripe by design – harvested ‘mature green’ and then gassed for a couple of days to turn them colors mimicking those of ripe tomatoes. Estabrook presents statistics showing how much richer in nutrient (and lower in sodium) our grandparents’ tomatoes were. We are shocked (I hope) to learn that Florida tomatoes are doused with insecticides so toxic that their use has been forbidden for all but four US crops, necessitating a chlorine bath (also appetizing!) for every tomato as it comes away from the field. And the darkest parts of the book, dealing with worker abuse involving both the lethal pesticides and the culture of modern day slavery in Florida (so commonplace that we meet in the book a US District Attorney in Florida who specializes in prosecuting slavery cases) provide a discomfiting amount of detail.
Estabrook provides more villains than heroes in Tomatoland, but one can walk away with a glimmer of hope that maybe it’s not too late to make changes that will begin to reverse the damage that’s been done. Maybe. Will reading this book turn you into a local tomato advocate, eschewing forever supermarket and fast-food tomatoes? Maybe. Will it have you thinking, as you take a bite out of your next tomato, about its origins, and the good or bad that went into its production? Ohhh, yeah. Tomatoland is a thoughtful, engaging read, well worth including on your summer reading list.
The takeaway: Pick up Esterbrook’s informative eye-opener, Tomatoland, for a stark look at the ills of today’s Florida tomato production practices, and learn to enjoy (even more than you already do) the sustainable, humanely grown seasonal harvest of your more local tomato farmers. Reading this book will, in the end, give you a greater appreciation for this fruit in its all its beauty and variety.
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit
c 2011 by Barry Estabrook
Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC
Disclaimer: I was provided a reader's copy of the text of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed in the review are solely my own.