We've all griped about the poor quality of tomatoes during winter, but have you ever wondered why they are so dependably bad? Barry Estabrook wondered and the answer he got was very disturbing. A chance encounter with what he thought were Granny Smith apples along the side of the road, but which turned out to be perfect, but solid as plastic, green tomatoes, sets Estabrook off in search of why these tasteless tomatoes have become a mainstay of American agriculture (and dinners). It's not a new story, sadly, but Estabrook and the people he interviews put a very human face on it.
The book grew from a James Beard Award winning article Estabrook wrote for Gourmet magazine called 'The Price of Tomatoes.' The topic takes on a personal tone when Estabrook reflects on his own experience growing tomatoes at his Vermont home. At home, he plops a seedling in the ground, checks on it occasionally and harvests when the tomatoes ripen. A simple question to a University of Florida vegetable specialist, "...what would happen if I applied the same laissez-faire horticultural practices to a tomato plant in Florida?", and her reply of, "Nothing.", spawned more questions about why there is such a large tomato growing industry in the barren soils of Florida and what they do to make it so?
What he uncovers has been the subject of many a prior report and documentary. What is so amazing is how little things have changed: the horrible living conditions of the migrant workers, who many have likened to slaves, the gassing and chemical treatments of the soil - and the workers in the fields, the complicity of the industry that allows these practices to continue, and perhaps worst of all, the indifference of the farmers. "As one large Florida farmer said, 'I don't get paid a single cent for flavor, I get paid for weight'."
There are plenty of fascinating detours, like when Estabrook takes us to the birthplace of the modern tomato, on a field trip to collect samples of disappearing wild varieties. But it's the heart-breaking stories of the field workers that makes you pound your head wondering why we allow this to continue when the end product is something we all complain about - mealy, flavorless winter tomatoes.
Some of the details are horrifying. Tomatoland is not a fun read and it is not a quick read. It also ends with the issue unresolved. It is dense with facts and interviews. There's a lot to digest here (no pun intended) and I'd like to think there is another side to every story, so hopefully things are getting better. I guess Estabrook must have sensed his exposé was a bit despairingly heavy because the last couple of chapters profile some of the good guys, like Tom Beddard, of Lazy Moon Farms, who is out to prove that, even in Florida, tomatoes can be grown organically. Or the Mennonite daycare program that not only keeps the kids safe from the fields, but also hires staff from the migrant community. Estabrook also offers an alternative vision with a profile of Tim Stark, a.k.a. The Tomatoman, whose small organic farm in Pennsylvania supplies many of New York City's finest restaurants and many happy shoppers at the Union Square Greenmarket with oddly shaped, sometimes less than perfect, always delicious heirloom tomatoes. Unfortunately there is still enough revealed here to leave you even more skeptical of the commercial agriculture industry than you were when you stated reading.
- Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing LLC (June 7, 2011)
- Format: Hardcover , 240 pp (also available as an ebook)
- ISBN: 1449401090
- Retail Price: $19.99
Interesting Florida Tomato Facts from "Tomatoland"
- One-third of the fresh tomatoes raised in the U.S. come from Florida
"...from October to June, virtually all the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes" are grown in Florida"
- The typical Florida tomato field is sprayed with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides. "...the official Florida handbook for tomato growers lists 110 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides that can be applied to a tomato field over the course of the growing season."
- The soil is fumigated with methyl bromide, to remove any lingering disease spores and nematodes.
- The hard, green tomatoes are gassed until their skins turn an acceptable red color, although they do not continue to ripen.
- Growing tomatoes this way reduces the amounts of Vitamin A, C and calcium they contain and increases the sodium content by as much as 14 times.
More Books About Tomatoes
- Book Review: Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer, by Tim Stark
- Book Review: The $64 Tomato - How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, by William Alexander
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.