Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomatoland




I remember reading Summer Lightning some years back about an old man and a boy growing up in Depression-era South Florida, not much unlike Huck Finn and Injun Joe.  In this case, the two had come across a bunch of crates of tomatoes piled up in a barn that seemed to be allowed to go rotten, so the two proceeded to eat as many of the juicy fruits as they could, until someone caught them and the old man, Mr. McCree, found himself faced with charges for trespassing and theft.  Young Terry was only 6 years old.  Of course, the old man was eventually acquitted and the tomato plantation owner revealed to be nothing more than an evil tyrant.

My mother and I had tried to grow tomatoes in Northwest Florida, but they came out rather salty being so close to the beach.  As Barry Estabrook describes in his book, Tomatoland, on the tomato industry in Florida, the soil simply isn't right for tomatoes.  What you have instead is a year-round climate that allows for the mass cultivation of tomatoes, picked green, gassed in the freight trucks to a sickly light rose color and delivered to supermarkets around the country come winter, when most of America's fields are in hibernation.

I had first heard of this gassing process from a high school friend, who had become a truck driver bringing in tomatoes from Mexico.  Florida farmers aren't the only culprits here, but Mr. Estabrook focuses on the Sunshine State, long noted for its questionable environmental and safety regulations.  He provides historical snapshots, including tomatoes being cultivated by the Aztecs who came up with the first salsa, apparently adding body parts to give it more flavor.  The Aztecs were a gruesome lot, but not as gruesome as the conditions many migrant farmers face in the town of Immokalee, which has become "Tomato Central."

South central Florida has had any number of dubious distinctions over the decades. The conditions in Immokalee aren't much better than in Mexico, which has led to workers trying to organize themselves into a coalition for better pay and health care.  Estawood provides of litany of infractions that would make most persons cringe, but the tomato syndicates are able to get away with it because of the low cost to consumers.

The odd thing is that tomatoes are one of the prized garden fruits (or vegetables depending on how you look at them).  Yet, we are willing to give up taste for price at the local supermarket for these "hard, tasteless, uniform green balls" that can survive an impact of 60 mph  off a truck.  According to Estawood, any attempt to grow a better tomato is met with condemnation from the Florida Tomato Committee.

Old Mr. McCree wouldn't have stood a chance against this all-powerful committee.  One can only hope that Estawood's book calls attention to plight of Immokalee workers and others migrant workers being abused around the country.

Image from Little Feat's album, Waiting for Columbus.


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