Friday, April 25, 2014

Tomato Talk

Really, I came to Interzone for the tomatoes, and boy, don't I wish I hadn't.

Someone - I forget who now or else I'd call him up and cuss him out - once told me that Ruskin, Florida is the nation's tomato capital. He lied.

Only a third of America's tomatoes come from Florida, and they're usually the worst ones. I hate to say that since this is supposed to be a very Florida-positive blog, but this is a lily that can't be gilded. Florida is the one of the worst possible places to grow tomatoes - wrong climate, wrong soil, and pesticides galore to fight off fungi, rust and insects. Citrus plants like oranges grow fine in sand, but tomatoes grown in it are bland-tasting and sickly.

But it gets worse. As Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, told NPR:

Up until recently, workers on many of Florida's vast industrial tomato farms were basically slaves. "People being bought and sold like animals," Estabrook says. "People being shackled in chains. People being beaten for either not working hard enough, fast enough, or being too weak or sick to work. People actually being shot and killed for trying to escape. That sounds like 1850's slavery to me, and that, in fact, is going on, or has gone on." Estabrook adds that there have been seven successful slavery prosecutions in Florida in the past 15 years. The situation is beginning to improve, he adds. It began with a group of tomato pickers called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named after the Florida town where they live and work.

I no longer purchase tomatoes from the west coast (where the other two thirds of America's tomatoes come from) because of Fukushima, so each day's grocery-foraging out into the world is tricky. Just as with my beloved cigars, I'm subject to the erratic whims of local vendors and must scurry around hustlin' each day or two to find the good 'maters.

There's a booth at the St. Petersburg Farmers Market that has the most serious heirlooms I've seen - even Mr. Stripey, one of my favorites - but you have get there early before the masses have plucked them all. The Gulfport Tuesday Market, on the other hand, usually has only one tomato vendor and I'm pretty sure their wares are just ordinary boring supermarket tomatoes. Spiro's Pasadena Produce & Deli keeps a very uneven collection of red round things in stock; you never know. They tend to have more Romas than anything else, and I don't really care for Romas. But I'm in the process of growing my own tomatoes now, and doing things my way - except I'll probably become emotionally attached to each of them and keep them as pets.

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