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.
A Love Story, Too
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.
without dallying in the shallows
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.