The New York Times July 5, 2011
That Perfect Florida Tomato, Cultivated for Bland Uniformity
By DWIGHT GARNER
How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit
By Barry Estabrook
220 pages. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Jonathan Lethem has seen the future of agribusiness, and that future is strange. In his novel “Girl in Landscape” (1998), he imagined humans inhabiting a new planet where meals grow inside “potatoes” that can be planted and harvested. Among the flavors: meat, cake and tea. “Fish,” one character announces, as if he were Ferran Adrià, “is the weirdest one.”
South Florida, where nearly all of America’s winter tomatoes are grown, is nearly as alien an environment for farming. It’s insane that tomatoes are grown there at all, Barry Estabrook writes in his delectable and angry new book, “Tomatoland.” This volume simmers like a big, bright kettle of heirloom tomato sauce.
Mr. Estabrook’s subtitle, “How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,” is spot-on, even if it reminds you that the only time the adjective industrial sounds nonterrifying is when it’s placed in front of “dance music.”
Why is South Florida such a grim place to grow tomatoes, the fruit we’ve agreed to accept — don’t ask, don’t tell — as a vegetable? Florida’s sandy soil, Mr. Estabrook writes, is as devoid of plant nutrients as a pile of moon rocks. “Florida growers,” he writes, “may as well be raising their plants in a sterile hydroponic medium.”
He continues, witheringly: “To get a successful crop, they pump the soil full of chemical fertilizers and can blast the plants with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides, including some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal.” Migrant workers are coated with these chemicals too. The toll that’s taken on them, in the form of birth defects, cancer and other ailments, is hideous to observe and should fill those who eat Florida tomatoes with shame.
And all this for what? Hard, tasteless, uniform green balls that barely dent when they fall off a truck at 60 miles per hour and that must be gassed to achieve the sick-pink hue they present in supermarkets. It’s no wonder generations of Americans have grown up thinking tomatoes were a fraud perpetrated by God, their parents or Taco Bell. I remember biting into one of these objects in a salad and thinking: Now there’s a supposedly tasty thing I’ll never eat again.
Mr. Estabrook, who was a contributor for many years to Gourmet magazine, is a careful John McPhee-like observer of nearly every aspect of the tomato’s history and current predicament. The modern tomato’s wild ancestors came from dry, inhospitable places like western Chile, Peru and Ecuador. These tomatoes tended to be tiny, and were painstakingly bred for size as well as flavor.
The Aztecs had a recipe for salsa. (They had another festive recipe, also employing tomatoes, that included the flesh of Spanish invaders, pulled one assumes like pork shoulder.) Tomatoes arrived in Europe by the mid-16th century, and were first mentioned in an Italian cookbook in 1692.
The historical details Mr. Estabrook supplies are consistently wonderful. During the Civil War, he writes, “the Union Army left a trail of empty tomato cans in the wake of its campaigns.” He points out that Americans ate better tomatoes, from Cuba, before Fidel Castro came to power. That’s when President Kennedy placed an embargo, still in effect, on Cuban tomatoes.
“Tomatoland” is at its most potent and scathing in its portrayal of South Florida’s tomato growers and their tactics over the past half-century. It’s infuriating to read of their lack of regard for the taste of their product. Historically, when a farmer has learned to grow a tasty variety, that farmer has actually been scorned and prevented from shipping it.
“Regulations actually prohibit growers in the southern part of Florida from exporting many of the older tasty tomato varieties because their coloration and shape don’t conform to what the all-powerful Florida Tomato Committee says a tomato should look like,” Mr. Estabrook writes.
It’s far more infuriating to read of the labor practices on these farms. That pickers are exposed to pesticides is only the tip of the iceberg. “Child labor and minimum wage laws are flouted,” Mr. Estabrook writes. “The most minimal housing standards are not enforced.” Worse, he writes, actual slavery is tolerated “or at best ignored.”
The author writes: “I began to see that the Florida tomato industry constitutes a parallel world unto itself, a place where many of the assumptions I had taken for granted about living in the United States are turned on their heads.”
To get at this world, he spent time with seed collectors, nutritionists, farmers, trade groups, workers and former workers, community developers. You get a sense of him shambling around in search of the weird and ugly truth, like Elliott Gould in “The Long Goodbye.” His tone is prosecutorial, but he notes the small improvement tomato companies have been forced to make in recent years.
I have a personal interest in “Tomatoland.” I spent a large chunk of my childhood in prosperous Naples, Fla., a scant half-hour — and yet a world away — from small-town Immokalee, the grim and scrubby home to Florida’s largest farmworker community. Immokalee is tomato central. Mr. Estabrook attends to reality when he writes, “Should you want to experience culture shock in one of its starkest forms, take the drive from Naples, Florida, to Immokalee.”
My mother taught for a decade in Immokalee Middle School, and regularly brought home horror stories about tomato pickers’ lives, and those of their children. I saw both sides. The family of a close high school friend owns one of the largest industrial tomato farms in Immokalee. Yet you don’t need to know this part of Florida to appreciate what Mr. Estabrook has accomplished.
“Tomatoland” is not as philosophically rich as Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” It’s not as adrenalized and slashing as Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” His book has a design flaw that slightly disfigures Mr. Pollan’s book, too, namely a fondness for a pre-industrial version of American agriculture without really explaining how small, idiosyncratic, organic farms can begin to feed the world’s hungry hordes.
But the pleasures of “Tomatoland” are real. They’re strong but subtle and sustained. Mr. Estabrook’s prose contains a mix of sweetness and acid, like a perfect homegrown tomato itself.