By now, most of us understand that tomatoes simply ain’t what they used to be.
Once upon a time, the tomato was synonymous with summer, a juicy and flavorful fruit that enticed: Eat now, for tomorrow ye may die. A native of South America, it was the New World’s gift to the Old World, where Italian cuisine made it famous.
Then came the fall. Over the past few decades, the tomato’s genes have been tweaked, nudged, prodded, turned upside down and inside out, then moved in mass to Florida so that crops can be harvested and sold all year.
The result is vaguely red, readily available, and cheap. It can be shipped anywhere by the tens of thousands with little risk of spoilage. But it is also tasteless, with the consistency of a tennis ball; squeeze one, and the flesh bounces right back like rubber. It has shelf life, and little more.
Barry Estabrook recounts this sad transformation in his new book, Tomatoland (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $19.95). And he brings to the story both the keen observations and easy writing of a veteran journalist, plus the knowledge and lust of a passionate foodie. Estabrook makes it a journey, and takes his reader with him.
Alas, the genetic transformation is merely the first stop. Estabrook takes us to the Florida fields which have one thing going for them — year-round sun. But to grow tomatoes in Florida, farmers need to drench those fields in a chemical soup of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides — $2,000 worth per acre per crop, five times more than the same tomatoes would get in California.
There is some debate over how much of the stuff remains on the product when it reaches the neighborhood supermarket, or our dinner tables. But we probably don’t want to know.
As the tour continues, the news gets worse. In order to get those enormous crops planted, fertilized, sprayed, sprayed again and eventually harvested, tomato farmers need armies of cheap labor, Estabrook writes. And the migrant labor system eventually descended into a nightmare of labor abuse that makes “Grapes of Wrath” sound like a picnic.
Immokalee, Florida, at the center of Estabrook’s Tomatoland, is “ground zero for modern-day slavery,” a U.S. attorney in central Florida tells the writer. “Any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”
Young Latin Americans are recruited by labor contractors, promised good wages, then sucked into a bleak cycle of work, debt, virtual captivity and horrible living conditions – while tomato growers focus on harvesting their crops. In some cases, pickers are forced to work amid fresh pesticides, contributing to horrible birth defects and shortened lifespans.
Mercifully, Estabrook’s tour includes glimpses of optimism. Civil rights groups have helped Latin American workers assert their rights, in some cases with help from fast food companies, whose executives were persuaded that working conditions could be improved for as little as a penny a pound of product.
And perhaps there is hope for the long-suffering tomato as well. Estabrook’s journey eventually takes us back to New York and Pennsylvania, where a few farmer-entrepreneurs are making a living producing quality fruit with fair labor practices. At least some Americans will gladly pay more for a tomato with more flavor, fewer chemicals and a climate of social justice.