My daughter loves tomatoes. Her favorites are grape tomatoes, which are bite-sized and sweet. I can’t really tell you what the ones from our garden taste like, because she eats them all, preferably while standing right next to the plant she just plucked them from. She doesn’t like the green ones, though – she tried it once, when she was impatient for more to ripen, and she was pretty disappointed with the flavor. Now she knows it’s worth the wait to let them ripen on the vine.
According to Tomatoland, by Barry Estabrook, vine-ripening is not allowed here in Florida, where most of the nation’s fresh tomatoes are grown. They last longer and prone to bruising of picked without any trace of red, then they are exposed to ethylene gas to force them to “ripen.” Even those who approve of this technique admit that it harms the flavor of the food. I guess this explains why I have never really been a fan of tomatoes – when I was a kid I didn’t like them at all, and now I really only like them if they are served with flavorful dressings or sauces (vinaigrette, mayo, hummus, etc.) or on a cheeseburger. Even then, sometimes I swear that taste like soap.
Flavor is one thing, but evidently they are less healthy for us than they used to be before these factory-farming techniques became the norm. “Today’s industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s. But the modern tomato does shame its 1960s counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much sodium.”
I remember reading – I think it was in a book by Dr. Atkins (the late low-carb guru) – that described fruit (specifically oranges) as being far higher in sugar than it was 100 years ago. I would imagine that most of the sugar increase is due to selective breeding, but it also makes sense that plants “are what they eat” in much the same way humans are. If the soil is pumped with pesticides and bleach and synthetic nutrients selected only to increase yield, it’s no wonder store-bought tomatoes sometimes taste like soap.
I read the introduction to the book as well as the first two chapters, and I will not be able to scratch the surface with my posts. Who knew that a book on tomatoes could be so riveting? I will just choose three points to share with you here:
1. There is a great deal of evidence that human slavery is still occurring in the U.S., specifically in tomato fields in Florida. I’m pretty sure Chapter 3 is going to delve more deeply into this, but I have already read enough that I have decided to avoid tomatoes in restaurants and from the grocery store until I can be convinced that this is no longer the case. Here is the quote that did it for me:
In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida’s tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery. In the last fifteen years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than one thousand men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida, and that represents only the tip of the iceberg. Most instances of slavery go unreported. Workers were “sold” to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t feel like working or were too sick or weak to work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards.
2. Florida is not the optimal place to grow tomatoes without a great deal of effort. As a marginally successful Florida gardener, this makes me feel simultaneously better and worse. As someone who has battled ants, various worms and caterpillars, spider mites, fungi (including the time I accidentally grew some strange mushrooms, presumably by over-watering), extreme heat (which caused my ripening cucumbers to explode this past summer), and seasonal light shifts that necessitate a complicated (and unsuccessful) attempt at using mirrors to bounce enough sunlight onto failing plants, it is a (very small) relief to know that I am attempting to do something that is really hard – particularly without resorting to “chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare.’
It really is worth it to buy organic food. Non-organic food can contain really dangerous chemicals, the kind that can cause birth defects, cancers, and other terrible things. We can peel it or wash the food all day long, and we won’t get all of the toxins out, because they slip into the food itself through roots, stems, and any sort of blemish on the surface. And we have been conditioned to prefer pretty produce (round, shiny, etc.) – I have spoken with several people who avoid organic produce because it’s not visually appealing. It makes me sick to my stomach to think that I, too, have passed over the organic section because I thought the food looked a little too beat up (this was before Michael Pollan, but still).
I have two store-bought tomatoes in the refrigerator, as well as two cartons of grape tomatoes. Little Mama and I will finish those up, but then we have buy them from the farmer’s market if we want more. I can’t wait to read on. Also, I have to figure out how many EarthTainers we will need to build this year (we have one so far).