'Tomatoland': Not all tomatoes are created equal
By Janice Lloyd, USA TODAY
Barry Estabrook scowls at the thought of industries growing tomatoes in fields. Ruins their taste, he says, and leads to other atrocities as well. Thus begins his investigation and book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit. He talked with USA TODAY's Janice Lloyd about why he will not eat just any tomato. The Gourmet article on which the book is based won the 2010 James Beard Award for magazine feature writing.
Q: What qualities make a tomato unforgettable?
A: The best way to experience that sensation is to grow your own. There is no better tomato than my home grown Brandywines. The sweetness and tartness play off each other perfectly. A real tomato's taste is distilled by the essence of the sun, warm soil and fine summer days.
Q: What sparked your interest to write about the tomato industry?
A: I was driving behind a truck in Florida that I thought was carrying green apples. Some of the orbs flew off. At the side of the road, I got a closer look. Not one was smashed. They turned out to be tomatoes so plasticine and so identical they could have been stamped out by the same machine. Florida is the poster child for everything that is wrong with not -seasonal and not -local produce.
Q: Where did those hard green orbs land you?
A: I visited winter tomato fields in Florida where tomatoes are picked green and sent to warehouses and gassed with ethylene until they acquire the rosey skin tone of a ripe tomato. I also talked to many experts about how flavor has been bred out of them over the years so they can ship easily, maintain a perfect appearance and have a long shelf life.
Q: What harm is done to a tomato by picking it early?
A: The only way to get a good tomato is to ripen it on the vine. But flavor aside, many workers on these factory farms are treated badly and are underpaid. They're also bombarded with pesticides and fungicides that protect the tomatoes from viruses and bugs but can be harmful to humans.
Q: Will industry tomatoes ever taste as good as homegrown ones?
A: Botanists at the University of Florida and elsewhere say yes. Industrial growers now do not get paid for flavor. They get paid for yield, size and appearance. But the botanists have been working on taste and say in 5 to 10 years, you'll see improvement in industrial tomatoes.
Q: What is a tomato lover's alternative?
A: No one wants a boycott, but people could encourage the business to spread out of Florida, which is the source of one third of the tomatoes Americans eat. Find a supermarket that supports sustainability, go to farmers markets where tomato displays scream out diversity and grow your own tomatoes.
Q: Does any one tomato reign in your garden?
A: I have 30 acres in Vermont and have plenty of room to grow tomatoes. Brandywines are my background. They may be ugly and fragile. But nothing is better tasting. Two other varieties are fun things like Matt's Wild Cherry, and Moskvich, which is fine tasting and is ready 20 days before the Brandywine.
Q: What if you do not have that much space to garden?
A: Even if you only have a balcony, it is easy to grow tomatoes. They want to grow.
"Put your big girl panties on and do it"
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