I’ve Become a Tomato Activist

When is the last time you ate a tomato? What did it taste like? Where did it come from?

If the answers to those questions are a.) within the past few months, b.) it had no taste at all, and c.) it came from the store or a restaurant, chances are you ate a modern-day relative of a real tomato.

“Perhaps our taste buds are trying o send us a message. 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 comtains fourteen times as much sodium.” – from Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabroak.

That quote came from a new book that has caught my attention in a big way. I’ve noticed for quite some time that supermarket tomatoes have zero taste. But I like tomatoes in salad and other favorite dishes. I know they aren’t like “real” tomatoes from the garden or the farmers market, but I still buy them.

Not any more. Tomatoland made me take a good look at the tomato industry and I didn’t like what I saw at all. The author, Barry Estabrook decided to find out why we can’t buy a decent fresh tomato and discovered that it’s not a simple question and answer.

He learned that Florida “accounts for one-third of the fresh tomatoes raised in the U.S., and from October to June, virtually all the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes..” It’s an example of industrial agriculture at it’s worst.

In addition to growing a taste-less fruit, many Florida tomato growers are responsible for some very shameful practices: modern-day slavery and inhumane treatment of the tomato workers. There are shady legal and political practices as well. Numerous herbicides and pesticides are sprayed on the tomato fields, often right on the workers.

Besides learning how awful these growers are, Tomatoland taught me a lot about plant biology and the genetic and political history of our beloved plant. For instance, I had no idea tomatoes originally came from Peru and were the size of peas. The book is filled with the stories of the people surrounding the subject of tomatoes. Barry Estabrook brought them all to life.

There is no doubt about it – this is good reading. It’s part expose, part history, and all very good journalism. I dare you to read this book and not want to DO something. That’s what happened to me.

I’m now calling myself a Tomato Activist. What does that mean? For me, here’s how I’m defining it:

  1. For one thing, I’ll never again buy or eat a fresh tomato unless I know exactly where it came from and under what conditions it was grown.
  2. I will ask at restaurants where their tomatoes came from. If I’m not satisfied, I’ll ask to have the tomato removed and I’ll let them know why.
  3. I have letters drafted to my senators and congressmen asking them to stick their noses into the working conditions for Florida tomato growers.
  4. I’ll can enough tomatoes to keep us supplied with tomatoes until the next season.
  5. I’m telling everyone I know to read Tomatoland.

I hope you’ll join me and become your own Tomato Activist.

About the author:

James Beard Award-winning journalist Barry Estabrook was a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine for eight years, writing investigative articles about where food comes from. He was the founding editor of Eating Well magazine and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Men’s Health, Audubon, and the Washington Post. He lives and grows tomatoes in his garden in Vermont.

Ask for this book at your local library and/or your local bookstore. Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook is also available at Amazon. (I am an Amazon Associate.)

This post is linked to Weekend Cooking, a weekly feature at Beth Fish Reads. Click the button below and it will take you there..

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22 Responses to I’ve Become a Tomato Activist

  1. kaye says:

    It’s a shame we can’t find a decent tasting tomato anywhere. The last really good tomato I had was years ago when one of my neighbors decided to grow his own. They were so tasty. The tomatos I get from Publix (local supermarket) are almost tasteless.

  2. I think reading this book would make me too sad! I love tomatoes so much, and it’s so hard to find any that don’t taste like rubber or plastic!

  3. Barbara says:

    I wondered what in the world a tomato activist was – now I know and I agree with everything you wrote. We grew our own last year; what a difference. The high price of tasteless tomatoes is another sin. In the summer we buy from local farmers along with their sweet corn and they’re delicious. I may stop buying them at the store too.

  4. Pat says:

    This is my first time joining Beth’s event — nice to meet you! I plant tomatoes every summer but I can’t possibly grow as many as I need. If I can find them I try to buy organic fruits and vegetables, as almost ALL commercially grown produce is unfortunately produced this way. I’m curious if Europeans do the same thing to their crops? I doubt it!

  5. Staci says:

    I have noticed over the years how the tomatoes have no taste. That’s why I always am happy to have summer roll around and enjoy tomatoes from my neighbor’s gardens. The practices of the working conditions do not surprise me. Our county has a huge migrant number and I’m sure they’re treated terribly too.

    Thanks for opening our eyes!

  6. Rikki says:

    I am not a tomato lover unless they are cooked in some way or other, but I can still understand where you are coming from. You have to tell us about your experiences in restaurants etc. in a later post. I am curious to know how people react when being pressed for more info on their vegetables. They probably have no clue where their tomatoes come from.

  7. I love tomatoes and grew my own in container pots for a number of years. But not this year 🙁 Big difference in taste. I added that book to my list, you are not the only one it seems who has been affected by it, I have seen quite a few great reviews! Thanks, Margot!

  8. TheBookGirl says:

    Your reaction to this book was similar to the reaction I had to Eating Animals (although I was already a vegetarian). I will definitely add this to my wish list; I like reading food-related non-fiction, and particularly books like this that have an important message.

  9. Heather says:

    This book sounds fascinating. My father has a green thumb when it comes to tomatoes and he likes to choose heritage types, so all the better

  10. Marg says:

    The last tomato I had was terrible. Of course, it was early winter and so probably not in season for us, but still!

  11. Louise says:

    What an interesting book Margot. I have only bought cherry tomatoes for quite a few years because they seem to be the only ones with any taste. I know they’ve stripped them of taste and nutrition, but didn’t realise that they had managed to add salt to tomatoes! This book sounds similar to Michael Pollan’s work- I’ve only read a part of his amazing Omnivore’s Dilemma, but do want to get to it again.

  12. JoAnn says:

    I could easily become a tomato activist! I love them, but hate the tasteless fruit in the supermarket. Nothing is better than locally grown organic and heirloom.

  13. I love fresh tomatoes. We grow our own and have been enjoying them for the past month. We sell a lot at the Farmers Markets. All of our are vine ripened and completey organic.

  14. Esme says:

    I am a huge fan of tomatoes-and always sniffing them before I purchase them to make sure I can smell them. I eat them daily. IN fact I just finished eggs for breakfast with tomatoes and a whole wheat English muffin.

  15. Annie says:

    We have the same problem, here in Europe, most of the tomatoes come from Spain (OK there is sun, but the working conditions are not good) or more ridiculous from Holland or Belgium where they grow in big greenhouses ! No taste at all for them !
    More and more people stop to buy them. Happily, we can buy too delicious tomatoes grown just near where we live, at farmer markets. I can do it here and it is a real pleasure !
    We have the same problem with strawberries sold in supermarket : to big, to early, no taste and poor conditions for workers.

  16. I thought I didn’t like raw tomatoes and wasn’t converted until I tasted my first heirloom at the Farmers Market. And, I still remember my first experience of eating a tomato from my garden, like an apple, still warm from the sun. There’s nothing like it.

    You’ve motivated me to get going on my project to buy a freezer so that I can have tomatoes all winter that are from sources that make my happy instead of ones that make me sad.

  17. I am very familiar with thie problem but didn’t know about the book. Our largest supermarket chain (when we’re in Florida) which is called Publix has refused to pay one more cent per pound for the tomato growers union in order to bring the pickers low wages up. One farming family near Imokalee was jailed for keeping pickers as slaves. I blogged about this a little bit a couple of years ago and I wrote to the Publix chain — received a nonsensical canned answer. I don’t buy their tomatoes and try not to buy any produce from them as a result of their stand. (It’s hard because it is by far the best supermarket in our area and sometimes its hard to get to the farm stand.) Anyway… I want to read this book.

  18. Patti Smith says:

    I’m a huge tomato fan! We grow as many as we can in the summer and put them up. We made it all the way through until February before we ran out. I don’t even like out of season tomatoes…they taste terrible so your essentially wasting your money. I can’t wait to read this book…I love stuff like this!

  19. Kate says:

    I must get this book! I too never cared for tomatoes until I had ones grown from my garden a couple of years ago (my partner is a big tomato eater and he’s responsible for the plants.) We never have enough space to grown enough for beyond the summer, but we’re very fortunate in that there’s a biweekly farmer’s market nearby with an awesome tomato grower from the Isle of Wight with amazing tomatoes year-round (organically grown in greenhouses, and only about 30 miles from us!) Thanks for telling us about this book; I’m going to see if I can get it from the library.

  20. Beth F says:

    You go! I do not eat or buy tomatoes out of season. I grow them or buy them from the farmers market — heirloom.

    I must get this book and become a Tomato Activist.

  21. stacybuckeye says:

    You have turned into an activist! Good for you Margot. I do not have the energy to go that extra mile right now, which is too bad because I do love tomatoes. Maybe someday. You’ll have to let us know how it goes. I’m interested.

  22. Pingback: Book Review: #16 – Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook | Let's eat Grandpa!

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