book review

Tomatoland: a Thinking Person's Love Story

As a person that loves to read, a child who spent hours with her nose in dictionaries and encyclopedias, it pains me that I read so slowly. But I do so with relish and with great appreciation of the work that goes into good writing. It's no secret that Apples of Love get me hot. And, food justice issues get the lawyer in me riled up, too.

So it will surprise no one that I have just finished Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, nor that I love it and highly recommend it.

An Exposé, a Page-Turner

In parts, this reads like a David and Goliath legal battle page-turner. Other chapters will recall the best travel writing, where the reader feels the dust on your clothes and sun on your back. And much of it is a horrifying exposé that the best investigative journalism sheds light on.

No where does the book lapse into the hand-wringing exhortations that turn many away from activist organizations who may achieve good ends through questionable tactics. There are no gimmicky theatrics. No dogma. Just a well-researched, well-documented and exceedingly well-written story. Or stories, really, as Estabrook covers and pieces together elegantly years of research; weaving them all into a compelling read.

From the high mountain deserts of South America to modern slave quarters in fetid, repurposed shipping containers, to the greenmarket in New York City where chefs from tony restaurants pickup orders from cranky artisan farmers, Estabrook takes us on the Tomato Trail. He traces its botanical history, its bizarre place in Florida agriculture and introduces us to characters both evil and saintly.

  • Modern plant breeding has tripled yields, but produces fruits with a fraction of the calcium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C, and fourteen tiimes as much sodium as the tomatoes our parents enjoyed.
  • Commercial tomatoes are responsible for more produce-related food-borne illness than any other vegetable. Your supermarket tomatoes even had a nice chlorine bath before landing on your sub sandwich.
  • The tomatoes you get in the supermarket, as well as the workers who pick them, are covered in a toxic soup of hazardous chemicals, like methyl bromide which is toxic to humans, the earth and the ozone layer. Horrendous and extremely rare birth defects were documented among the workers in tomato fields of Ag-Mart Produce.
So these ubiquitous supermarket orbs (whose shape is actually regulated!) are the product of slave labor, chemical warfare, grown in utterly barren soil, in dicey conditions. The only thing they have in common with tomatoes from your farmers' market or backyard are distant genetics. The kicker is that they don't even taste good. All "mature greens" as they are known are gassed with ethylene gas to induce a color change.

A Love Story, Too

Lest you think the book is too depressing to pick up, let me hasten to add that this is one of the most uplifting books I've read in a while.
How can it be after documenting all these travesties? I'm renewed by the stories of the otherwise unknown characters (I mean that in both senses of the word) in this book. The folks who get the work done. This book introduces us otherwise nameless folks; not only the field workers, struggling under inhumane conditions because it's the best opportunity they can see for themselves. It also tells the stories of the many people on the Tomato Trail, from the worker advocates, developing fair housing, fighting for a penny-a-pound wage increase, running child care centers for the workers. It also tells of people who are trying to find a better way, some of them succeeding.

Everything-but-certified Organic farmers, breeders trying to find a market for flavorful tomatoes, farm worker organizers, even attorneys fighting and settling the cases on behalf of the children born with birth defects to farm workers forced to work with unsafe chemicals. These are the people who would otherwise have remained anonymous to us. These are the stories I find uplifting, the sort of stories would seldom hear but for the work of people like Estabrook who is finally getting some recognition for his work, too.

In reflecting on this book and the people whose stories it tells, I kept thinking of Marge Piercy's To be of Use.
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

Yes, this book is not just about our love for tomatoes, it is about the many hands, and backs, the tears, the blood, the efforts of all who research better ways to grow better tomatoes, those that grow them, that pick them, that pack them. It's a fascinating path tracing how our food systems have corrupted what is our most precious and beloved fruit.

To eat a perfect tomato changes you. To read this book does, too.