My husband and I bought our first house this year, and we moved during of one of the snowiest winters the Mid-Atlantic has seen in decades. I thought I’d be back in full swing with the cooking and blogging by now. Everything in the kitchen was ship-shape quite some time ago. But then there were the boxes of things I hadn’t found a place for that were stacked in the bedroom, the family room, and the dining room. Then there was a garden to plant and a lawn to seed. Not to mention the responsibility of a day job and commute that was leaving me wiped out by the time I got home. The next thing I knew, months had flown by and I hadn’t cooked much or written anything worthwhile. But now everything is finally in its place, and the tomatoes are beginning to ripen. Dozens of tomatoes; possibly hundreds.
I have a deep love of homegrown and locally farmed tomatoes. Each summer I had grown a few varieties in containers on the asphalt out back of our rented house. Our kids learned early the difference between the insipid tomatoes purchased in the off season at the supermarket, and the luscious sweet-tart taste of a sun-warmed, freshly harvested tomato. So, for the first time equipped with a garden in which I could plant anything my heart desired, I went to the garden center and bought some tomato plants. Apparently I got a little carried away. I now have approximately 15 large tomato plants, representing five varieties, bearing fruit.
One may imagine my delight when some of the cherry tomatoes started to turn red. And then the anxiety set in when I realized I was going to have a few dozen plum tomatoes ripening at the same time that I would have to can quickly. I’m also working on a plan to use a few plants’ worth of green, purple, and red slicing tomatoes, which involves a number of salads and sandwiches, and a lot of happy co-workers who will be receiving some of the harvest. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the abundance of fruit – it has been a nearly perfect tomato-growing season so far – it’s just that I had lost my cooking mojo. What a way to get it back!
But if anything convinced me that growing my own tomatoes and canning them for the winter is an absolute must, it’s Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. A bone-chilling account of the mistreatment of tomato pickers by tomato growers in Florida, and the incredible disregard the growers have for the public by providing a product that is not only terrible tasting, but, in my opinion, possibly not safe to consume.
While I’ve been conscious for years about factory farmed meat, making an effort to purchase meat and dairy from farms that provide humane conditions for animals, I have given barely a thought to who has grown and picked our vegetables and fruits. When I’m buying produce, I might look for organic when I know that particular fruit is prone to being heavily treated with pesticides, or I will buy our vegetables from farmers market when in season. But never had I thought about the treatment of the workers in the fields, or offices for that matter, until now. “Slavery is alive and well in America” is not a quip.
“When I asked [Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney] if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. “It’s not an assumption. It is a fact.” (Read an excerpt here.)
Mr. Estabrook shows the perspective of the Florida tomato industry from all sides - from the pickers to the distributors, from the grocers and fast food chains to Congress – revealing a poisonous and inhumane culture one would expect to see only in movies. Tomatoland is fascinating, well-written, and scary as Hell. I had no idea how many tomatoes my husband and I consume in a typical week, but this book made me notice tomatoes are in the majority of our meals. Even a slice of pizza has me looking crosseyed.
I believe Tomatoland may have the same impact on the produce industry that Omnivore’s Dilemma and similar books have had on the cattle and poultry industry. By opening eyes to how backwards and unjust our industrial farming culture can be, as well as how progressive some farms are becoming, the public will be put significant pressure on commercial produce buyers and growers to lessen their use of harmful pesticides and prove they are treating (and paying) their workers fairly. The cost will surely trickle down to the consumers, but it’s a price worth paying.
While there is no immediate answer, for now I’ll be enjoying the fruits of my own labor, and putting renewed effort into paying serious attention to the source of the food we buy.