There's a frustratingly short period—early August to late September, more or less—during which you can get juicy tasty fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes at the farmers' markets that are scattered around New York City. Some are organic; these eat up half your week's food budget. Even the non-organic ones are pretty expensive. All are grown on small farms in New York state, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. If you, like me, yearn all year for a real tomato, you haunt the farmers' markets during those six or eight weeks and fork over the cash to buy as many as you can afford, and then you eat them with everything, or alone, savoring the drip, slurping the seeds, until the tiny window has closed and you begin again your long slog through a year without tomatoes.
Because who the hell wants to eat those horrid red balls that pass themselves off as tomatoes in stores and restaurants? I refuse to buy them at the supermarket. At restaurants I always specify "no tomatoes" with whatever I'm ordering. Whoever I'm with usually asks, oh don't you like tomatoes? My answer is that actually I love tomatoes but what they're going to slice onto my sandwich or quarter into my salad is not a tomato and I cannot abide the look feel or taste of the imposter.
If any of this resonates with you—and one thing I learned from the book I just read is that many people throughout the land share my disgust with the pseudo-tomatoes that agribusiness foists on us—I commend to you Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. It's subtitled "How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit" and Estabrook does a fine job of laying out the how, along with the when and where.
The why? That's easy: profit. Estabrook doesn't directly call out the capitalist system as the real culprit behind the crimes of the Florida tomato industry. OK, fine, he just sticks to the facts. The facts, though, lead to no other possible conclusion. There can be no clearer case study of capitalism's destructive force than what he offers in this book.
It's not just about the de-tomato-ing of the tomato. In fact, that's the least of it. If it were just that the industry has transformed a glorious food into an insipid faux-food that would be bad but not as awful as what they've actually done. Which is poison great swaths of land in Florida. And water. And air. And people. Everyone who bites into one of these faux-tomatoes is ingesting great gulps of extraordinarily toxic chemicals.
However, the people being poisoned the worst—and that's just one part of the unbelievably nightmarish extremes of mistreatment, oppression and exploitation to which they're subjected by the tomatoland owners—are the workers who toil in the fields in and around Immokalee. To his great credit, Estabrook devotes a large portion of his book to them. The conditions of their lives and work, the hardships they face and the courage they've shown in organizing and fighting back to demand their rights—he lays all this out in a compelling narrative that is must reading for any partisan of the working class struggle. In fact, he dedicates the book to "the men and women who pick the food we eat."
I've followed the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for some years now, as have most people who align themselves with the cause of labor. It's good, though, even if you already knew about this fight, to read some of the specific stories Estabrook lays out, and meet some of the specific workers whose tales he tells. It's good, too, to be reminded of just how extreme the situation of the Immokalee tomato workers is.
This extreme: If you have eaten a tomato bought at a U.S. grocery stores in the winter, you have been fed on the product of slave labor.
Read Tomatoland to get your red blood boiling and your red solidarity revved. Then head over here to see what you can do to stand with the workers.