Tomato Mania: Tomatoland looks at the effects and the future of our nation’s obsession with tomatoes

 Tomato Mania: Tomatoland looks at the effects and the future of our nation’s obsession with tomatoes 

Tomatolandcover1

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook.
Andrews McMeel Publishing;
Original edition (April 24, 2012).
ISBN: 1449423450

A friend recently told me that she would no longer be eating fish and chips
because, unsurprisingly, the trawling process to catch cod ends up destroying
other coral reef and sea life along the way.  Indeed, I can’t quite stomach KFC
after seeing Food Inc. and other foodie documentaries. I think twice about corn syrup and corn-based snacks. I’ve eaten a hamburger in the company of vegetarians, only to hear just how much water it takes to produce my fried quarter pound of beef (almost 2,000 liters).  I’ve seen PETA brochures that make me
never want a BLT, ever, ever, again.  Yet, when eating my hamburger, or my
turkey sandwich, or even a salad, I’ve not once been told about the evils of the alluring red tomato hiding within. That is, not until I picked up a copy of Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland.

Unearthing an plethora of disturbing details behind one variety of industrially grown tomatoes, the imperfectly perfect “Florida Rounds,” Estabrook details the history behind the rampant pesticide use, distasteful breeding methods, and slave labor of Florida’s tomato industry. In a reporting style that mixes personality, shock, balanced interviews, and advocacy, Estabrook describes “a world we’ve made, and one we can fix. Welcome to Tomatoland.”

Indeed, Estabrook welcomes readers to a world they already know if they’ve ever eaten a mealy, pale tomato.  What readers likely do not know, however, comprises the most compelling sections of the book’s tomato exposé – the horrific conditions of Florida’s tomato laborers, which are even more sickening than the paltry red fruits they produce. For readers who only picture dying birds and feminized fish at the mention of pesticides, Estabrook gives very personal reminders that people are exposed, too.

And for what?  The industry is hardly lucrative, and it’s certainly not for gastronomic delight. Florida Rounds are grown for durability and perfectly spherical shape because, as phrased by Florida Tomato Committee’s compliance officer Steve Jones, “taste is subjective.” Really, these Floridian fruits only exist because “people want something red to put in their salad.”

Estabrook gets dirty to unearth the secrets behind the modern tomato industry, taking readers into the quarters of modern slaves, fields filled with pesticides, courtrooms, sheriff stations, and soup kitchens.  He riles environmental ideals with stories of pesticides and acres of rotting tomatoes because harvesting would cost more than a grower could make in profit.  From a variety of perspectives – both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” – Estabrook compiles a highly personalized and shocking condemnation of industrial tomato production.

But Estabrook, who used to write about both food and politics for Gourmet Magazine, also knows how to make tomato flavor sing on paper.  My mouth waters at descriptions of accidental farmer Tim Stark’s home-grown heirloom varieties sold in a New York City farmer’s market. In the latter half of the novel, Estabrook couples organic successes with recent improvements in the industry. Though obviously advocating for change in the industrial food system, Estabrook describes organic farmers and political change in Florida’s tomato system to show that change is, indeed, possible.

This second half, by nature, reads a little slower. It does not compel me to jump out of my chair and tell my next-door neighbor to never buy a Florida Round tomato ever, ever again. It shows improvements, which are less shocking than the injustice. But, it adds the needed sweetness to a book that started bitter. Offering an organic solution, Estabrook elevates Tomatoland to a book of criticism and hope, condemnation and advocacy, a book that I can savor over and over again.

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