Serious Reads: Tomatoland, by Barry Estabrook

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

20110701tomatoland.jpgThe plight of tomato pickers in the growing regions of Florida is something we're hearing more and more about, from activists and the media. In the past, we've covered various activities of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group that fights for the rights of these often mistreated workers. Those conditions have also piqued the interest of food journalist Barry Estabrook, who has done much reporting on the tomato industry on his blog, Politics of the Plate.

After years of research into this industry and the lives of those who suffer for our favorite summer crop, Estabrook recently published Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. The title certainly doesn't mince words, and Estabrook provides a compelling narrative to match his dramatic introduction.

The book begins by describing how the tomato has been transformed, through cross-breeding and genetic adjustment, into a uniform, nearly tasteless orb seen year-round in supermarkets across the country. National supermarkets and restaurants have driven demand for a consistent product, one which will please consumers seeking the vegetable for salsas and salads. Tomatoes are picked while still green, and ripened with ethylene gas en route to packing plants. Shoppers notice a difference; few will claim that a grocery store tomato tastes as sweet as a vine-ripened garden tomato. But these practices continue to thrive.

Estabrook moves from scientists and plant researchers to those who implement the grand vision of science—tomato pickers and their families. He highlights children who were born with birth defects due to their mothers' pesticide exposure. He tells tales of beatings, forced labor, and horrendous living conditions. And he focuses on a lawyer attempting to fight for the rights of these workers, struggling with language barriers and the constant obstacle of citizenship.

In the final section of his book, Estabrook takes a look at some farmers who are attempting to bring back heirloom tomatoes and sustainable growing practices. The market is growing exponentially for these products, and many of the farmers he spoke to could barely keep their farmers' market displays stocked with ripe fruit. But as optimistic as this picture is, the industrial tomato exists in an altogether different world from a juicy Brandywine.

Estabrook knows this topic extremely well, and is a great writer. Tomatoland is a quick read, but engaging and informative. I appreciated that he engaged in discussions of how and why tomatoes have become the vegetable we scorn in the grocery store, rather than just elaborating on or dramatizing the plight of tomato pickers. I'd recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about large-scale tomato agriculture and its consequences on individuals and our food system as a whole.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.