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Tomatoland (2011): Horror Is Not Only in Novels

Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland: How Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011)


photo credit: Everyday Liturgy

So red, so ripe, so delicious…like the blood of the slave workers who cultivated it for you.

I picked up Tomtoland expecting a kind of first-world-problems foodie lament about how factory farming had turned the tomato from that red, bursting, joyous thing one finds occasionally during the summer at farmer’s markets to the half-green, impossible-to-slice globule one can now find at the local hypermarket year-round. And yes, there is a good bit of that, but there are also a lot of very non-first-world problems here; Estabrook spends a very large portion of this manuscript describing what is, for all intents and purposes, a Mexican slavery ring (though I’m sure its progenitors would prefer the term “indentured servitude”) that is alive and well and operating full steam ahead in Florida even as I sit here writing this in the middle of winter (and getting little bits of chopped half-green tomato on my hospital salad three times a week).

There is, of course, the foodie lament as well; when Estabrook is concentrating on this aspect of the manuscript, he in general focuses on the science of the tomato, the reason that some sort of lumpy Peruvian fruit tastes perfectly like a tomato while the sweet-scented Florida globe tomato persists in tasting like nothing at all. There’s a lot of science-in-layman’s-terms stuff and some great interviews with folks who keep seed databases of heirloom tomatoes (the framing device is about a team of guys heading to Peru to find one of the first strains of tomato-like plants still extant, and then Estabrook making the same trek at the end). If you like food biographies, it is of course going to be right up your alley. There is the obligatory anti-factory-farm stuff, as well, and it makes sense; if you’re trying to grow fifty thousand acres of tomatoes that all look and taste the same, you’re going to breed out all the characteristics that make tomatoes interesting. (And, of course, the small farmers who grow those interesting tomatoes get a bunch of sympathetic column inches, as they should; these are people who actually care about the food.

But the anti-factory-farm stuff takes a much, much darker turn during the middle third of the book, when Estabrook turns investigative journalist and starts tracing the history of the thousands upon thousands of undocumented migrant workers who toil in Florida’s tomato fields. If you were ever anti-factory-farm, this section of the book will cement whatever you had in your head. In a chilling, detached tone—the only one that really would have validated this material—Estabrook describes the plight of these workers, constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals, often without so much as a filter mask; conned into living in substandard housing that costs twice as much as a luxury apartment in New York City and skinned to the point where “I owe my soul to the company store” seems like a cri de coeur to the good old days; forced to work by the kinds of foremen who will break legs or set fire to trailers if they feel it will get the workers out into the fields faster. It’s more of a horror story than any fiction I read this year, and it’s truly important writing—even if you’ve never really thought about the whole factory farm issue before (perhaps especially if you’ve never etc.), you owe it to yourself to read this book.

One way or the other—whether you’re interested in the social-justice aspect of the story, the foodie aspect of the story, or both—this is a must-read, one of the best books that crossed my desk this year. It doesn’t matter who you are, I recommend this one to you. Read it ASAP. It is a stunning piece of work. ****

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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