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copyright © 2011 by Barry Estabrook. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of reprints in the context of reviews.
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For the men and women who pick the food we eat
This book would have never been written had Ruth Reichl and John Willoughby at
magazine not had the integrity and courage to print an article about modern-day slavery in a national food magazine. Thanks also to Marisa Robertson-Textor, Christy Harrison, and Adam Houghtaling at
for keeping the story alive online, the facts straight, and the Condé Nast lawyers happy.
My interest in tomato production in Florida was sparked by two terrific magazine articles: “Tomatoes,” by Thomas Whiteside (the
, January 24, 1977), and “A Matter of Taste: Who Killed the Flavor in America’s Supermarket Tomatoes?” by Craig Canine (
, January/February 1991). That these articles have stood the test of time is both a tribute to the quality of their research and writing and an indication of how little the Florida tomato industry has changed. Three excellent books also inspired and informed me. I am heavily indebted to their authors and heartily recommend their work.
by John Bowe and
The Slave Next Door
by Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter both examine involuntary servitude in the Unites States today, and
by Arthur Allen provides an engaging, informative portrait of all things tomato. Any writer researching labor abuses in Florida owes an enormous debt to the tireless reporting of Amy Bennett Williams of the
and John Lantigua of the
Palm Beach Post
Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers were generous with their time and tolerance for a curious reporter: Greg Asbed, Lucas Benitez, Emilio Galindo, Laura Germino, Jose Hilario Medel, Leonel Perez, Julia Perkins (“Translator Extraordinaire”), and Geraldo Reyes. I am also grateful for the help I received from Jordan Buckley and Meghan Cohorst of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Elsewhere in Florida, thanks to Jeannie Economos, Pedro Jesus, Victor Grimaldi, Linda Lee, Greg Schell, Steven Kirk, Barbara Mainster, Tom Beddard, Andrew Yaffa, Yolanda Cisneros, Joseph Procacci, and Reggie Brown.
From academia, Roger Chetelat, Harry Klee, Jay Scott, and Monica Ozores-Hampton were generous with information about tomato breeding and horticulture. Any errors are my own. I would like to stress that information about the effects of agricultural chemicals came from my own research and is in no way attributable to them.
Thanks, Tim Stark and Wayne Miller, for showing me how tomatoes should be grown and letting me ride shotgun. And to Chef Peter Hoffman of Savoy and Back Forty in New York, long a champion of buying local food and great tomatoes.
My agent David Black helped me shape this idea and then placed it with the perfect publisher. Thanks to Kirsty Melville, Chris Schillig, Amy Worley, Tammie Barker, John Carroll, Tim Lynch, Holly Ogden, and Dorothy O’Brien at Andrews McMeel. Much appreciation to Jacinta (“Flying Fingers”) Monniere for cleaning up the manuscript and thereby preventing it from being later than it was.
As in everything I do, I had the advantage of the support and shrewd insights of Rux Martin throughout this project, my partner, my teammate, and the most wonderful editor in the world.
ON THE TOMATO TRAIL
y obituary’s headline would have read “Food Writer Killed by Flying Tomato.”
On a visit to my parents’ condominium in Naples, Florida, I was mindlessly driving along the flat, straight pavement of I-75, when I came up behind one of those gravel trucks that seem to be everywhere in southwest Florida’s rush to convert pine woods and cypress stands into gated communities and shopping malls. But as I drew closer, I saw that the tractor trailer was top heavy with what seemed to be green Granny Smith apples. When I pulled out to pass, three of them sailed off the truck, narrowly missing my windshield. Chastened, I eased back into my lane and let the truck get several car lengths ahead. Every time it hit the slightest bump, more of those orbs would tumble off. At the first stoplight, I got a closer look. The shoulder of the road was littered with green tomatoes so plasticine and so identical they could have been stamped out by a machine. Most looked smooth and unblemished. A few had cracks in their skins. Not one was smashed. A ten-foot drop followed by a sixty-mile-per-hour impact with pavement is no big deal to a modern, agribusiness tomato.
If you have ever eaten
a fresh tomato from a grocery store or restaurant, chances are good that you have eaten a tomato much like the ones aboard that truck. Although tomatoes are farmed commercially in about twenty states, Florida alone accounts for one-third of the fresh tomatoes raised in the United States, and from October to June, virtually all the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes in the country come from the Sunshine State, which ships more than one billion pounds to the United States, Canada, and other countries every year. It takes a tough tomato to stand up to the indignity of such industrial-scale farming, so 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.
Beauty, in this case, is only skin deep. According to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Americans bought $5 billion
worth of perfectly round, perfectly red, and, in the opinion of many consumers, perfectly tasteless commercially grown fresh tomatoes in 2009—our second most popular vegetable behind lettuce. We buy winter tomatoes, but that doesn’t mean we like them.
In survey after survey
, fresh tomatoes fall at or near the bottom in rankings of
consumer satisfaction. No one will ever be able to duplicate the flavor of garden-grown fruits and vegetables at the supermarket (or even the farmers’ market), but there’s a reason you don’t hear consumers bemoaning the taste of supermarket cabbages, onions, or potatoes. Of all the fruits and vegetables we eat, none suffers at the hands of factory farming more than a tomato grown in the wintertime fields of Florida.
Perhaps our taste buds are trying to send us a message. Today’s industrial tomatoes are as bereft of
nutrition as they are of flavor.
According to analyses
conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less
vitamin C, 30 percent less
thiamin, 19 percent less
niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s. But the modern tomato does shame its 1960s counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much
A couple of winters ago
, I bought an assortment of
supermarket tomatoes and brought them home for a tasting. I put four on the counter and reached for a cutting board, accidentally nudging one. I was too slow to stop it and watched as it rolled off the counter and fell on our newly refinished pine floor. It hit and traveled for a few feet but incurred no damage. As I retrieved it, my partner came into the kitchen, and I tossed the tomato at her playfully. She shrieked and dodged, and my hardy store-bought tomato struck the floor with the solid thud of a baking potato. I bowled the fruit through the kitchen door, across the dining room, over a wooden threshold, onto the tile floor of the sunroom, where The Tomato That Would Not Die crashed against the door. No damage done.
The best way to experience true tomato taste is to grow your own.
Little wonder that tomatoes are by far the most popular
vegetable for home gardeners, found in nearly nine out of ten backyard plots. Both The Tomato That Would Not Die and the heirloom Brandywines in my Vermont garden are of the species
, and both are red. But the similarity ends there. My Brandywines are downright homely—lumpy, deeply creased, and scarred, they look like badly sunburned Rubens derrieres. Nor are they made for travel. More often than not, one will spontaneously split during the twenty-five-yard stroll from garden to kitchen. If not eaten within a day or so after being picked, they develop brownish bruises and begin leaking a watery orange liquid. But that rarely happens. Around our place, Brandywines go fast. They may be ugly. And fragile. Yet there is no better-tasting tomato than a garden-ripe Brandywine. With sweetness and tartness playing off each other perfectly, and juices that burst into your mouth in a surge that forces you to abandon all pretext of good table manners and to slurp, a real tomato’s taste is the distilled essence of sun, warm soil, and fine summer days.
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Not everyone can grow a garden or head out to a neighborhood farmers’ market in search of the ideal tomato. But we all have an alternative to the sad offerings of commercial agriculture. At a lunch
spot in the town where I live, a handwritten notation appeared on the blackboard listing the daily specials one June afternoon. “Dear Customers, we will not be putting tomatoes on our sandwiches until we can obtain ones that meet our standards. Thanks.” With that small insurrection, the restaurant’s proprietor had articulated a philosophy that more of us should embrace: Insist on eating food that meets
standards only, not the standards set by corporate agriculture.
local, seasonal, fresh, sustainable, fair trade—the words have become platitudes that skeptics associate with foodie elitists who can afford to shop at natural food stores and have kitchens that boast $5,000 ranges and larders filled with several varieties of vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and “natural” sea salt. It’s easy to forget that those oft-repeated words do mean something. Florida’s tomato fields provide a stark example of what a food system looks like when all elements of
sustainability are violated.
This book began as an attempt to answer what I thought were a couple of simple questions. Why can’t (or won’t)
modern agribusiness deliver a decent tasting tomato? And why can’t it grow one with a similar nutritional profile to the tomatoes available to any housewife during the Kennedy administration? My investigations into the mysteries of modern tomato production took me on a circuitous journey from my garden in New England to a research greenhouse at the University of California Davis, to the rocky fields of a struggling produce farmer in Pennsylvania, and to the birthplace of tomatoes in the remote coastal deserts of northern Peru. But I always found myself coming back to where it all started for me—Florida.
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So, why can’t we walk into a supermarket in December and buy the tomato of our dreams? Part of the reason is that it is essentially against the law.
Regulations actually prohibit
growers in the southern part of Florida from exporting many of the older tasty tomato varieties because their coloration and shape don’t conform to what the all-powerful Florida Tomato Committee says a tomato should look like. The cartel-like Committee exercises Orwellian control over tomato
Spotify paypal verify your code. exports from the state, and it decrees that slicing tomatoes shipped from South Florida in the winter must be flawlessly smooth, evenly round, and of a certain size. Taste is not a consideration.