“Tomatoes Gone Bad”
A review of
How Modern Industrial Agriculture
Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
by Barry Estabrook.
Review by Alex Joyner.
With apologies to William Shakespeare:
What a piece of work is a store bought tomato,
how noble in color,
how infinite in shelf-life;
in form and roundness how excessive and admirable,
in inaction how like a wax dummy,
in taste how like a piece of cardboard:
the beauty of the world, the paragon of vegetables!
(or fruits, whatever)
And yet to me what is this quintessence of agriculture?
Store bought tomatoes delight not me –
nor canned neither, though by your redness you seem to say so.
There’s a hard science to growing tomatoes commercially. In Florida it begins with acres of stretched white plastic covering long, straight mounds of raised dirt. Underneath that plastic nutrients not native to the soil are injected in precise locations. It ends with acres of burnt plants dotted with tomatoes that were not ripe at the harvest time and have now been left to compost. In between growers spray dangerous chemicals, migrant laborers work in often inhumane conditions, and supermarkets treat American consumers to a product that is notable for its endurance, but certainly not its taste.
Each year as summer ends, I find myself contemplating the tomato. Some of the same growers that Barry Estabrook profiles in his new book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit are also active here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. As I walk down the street in front of my house in this season I find the curbside littered with green orbs that have dropped from the heaping loads headed from the fields to the packaging facility. Undisturbed by the fall, these tomatoes look just as Estabrook describes them – “so plasticine and so identical they could have been stamped out by a machine…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” (ix).
At the same time August brings a very different kind of tomato to my table. The small garden patch out back produces tomatoes with honest-to-goodness blemishes. Neighbors bring by ugly tomatoes that have to be monitored so that they don’t spoil before being sliced into sandwiches. But what these other tomatoes, (the ones folks call ‘real tomatoes’), have is a flavor that makes any blistering heatwave bearable. I believe in the inexhaustible splendor of God’s creation when I am savoring a homegrown tomato with its locular jelly spilling down my chin. (Estabrook gave me that scientific term for the inner gooey goodness of a tomato.)
So how did we come to love the homegrown variety and to produce the atrocity that litters my local curbs? This is the question that propels Estabrook’s inquiry. The veteran food writer and founding editor of Eating Well magazine travels the literary path of Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) as he traces the history of the noble fruit from its origins in the Peruvian deserts to the agribusiness fields of Florida. It’s the familiar story of our contemporary estrangement from our food with the tomato being the canary du jour of our coal mine. But if Estabrook does not have Pollan’s literary touch or Schlosser’s sloppy energy, the story he tells is no less revelatory.
In Tomatoland we have, collected in one place, all the horrors we’ve imagined or heard about our beloved fruit: the lethal pesticides sprayed liberally on plants, fields and people alike; the conditions of workers in places like Immokalee, Florida, a place one U.S. attorney calls “ground zero for modern-day slavery” (75); the scrappy Coalition of Immokalee Workers which has won small victories against giant growers and fast-food corporations; the laboratories that breed new varieties of tomatoes with very little concern for flavor. Estabrook tells us all these stories, often with extraneous detail and great earnestness.
What it leaves the reader hungering for, besides a good tomato sandwich, is a narrative that can make sense of a global tomato manufacturing system such as this. Beyond the practical concerns for respecting workers and consumers, what does a soulless tomato say about who we have become in this postindustrial age? What stares back at us when we regard a smooth-skinned beauty in a supermarket produce bin?
Maybe our plastic produce is the best place to look to begin to think theologically about who we are. You are what you eat after all. And if what we eat is so disappointing and so destructive then perhaps we are not just alienated from our food but from God? Thomas Henderson, a farmer-pastor in Tennessee, told me a few years ago in an interview that food insecurity is “the theological issue of the 21st century.” Having food for all, knowing that it has been produced in a way that honors the land and the laborers, and celebrating the gifts given seem to be next steps following this book.
And now with apologies to country songwriter Guy Clark:
“I know what this country needs -
homegrown tomatoes in every yard you see…
Only two things that money can’t buy:
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”*
Alex Joyner is pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and is the author most recently of Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering and Hope [Abingdon Press, 2010].
*Guy Clark, “Homegrown Tomatoes”