Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Babies in the Tomatoes! A book review and high praise for locally grown fruit

Photo of La Tomatina festival in Spain -  AP Photo - Alberto Saiz
“In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon
fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
  What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at 
night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!
--and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?”
“A Supermarket in California” from the book “Howl” by Allan Ginsberg, Berkeley, CA 1955
Full poem read by A.Ginsberg here:
Redland grown heirloom tomatoes. Beautiful, scars and all.   
 Chances are if you read this blog, you’ve had a really good tomato at some point in your life, more than likely you’ve probably had several memorable ones. All it takes is one bite to convince you that THIS was the best tomato you’ve had. You may have grown it, bought it at a farmers market or maybe it was a gift from a friend with a bumper crop of garden tomatoes. At some point this past winter you probably sliced one open, sprinkled it with a little sea salt and quietly indulged it its freshness.  My guess is that it was probably tart and sweet with a savory touch. The more you ate, the more you realized how big the flavor really was. However it ended up in your mouth I’m sure it was one hell of a tomato. It was so good that you are probably drooling a little bit right now as you think about it. Well I’m here to tell you that you are not weird for doing so, and no, you are not alone. A good tomato is a thing of wonder that shouldn’t be as hard to find as it seems sometimes. 

Albacore salad with mini-heirlooms and homemade Greek-style yogurt
So what’s with the babies in the tomatoes and the literary types loitering amongst the melons? Well, that’s easy. It's one of my favorite poems, so why not. I love the imagery; the setting of it is interesting. If you click the link, you can hear Allan Ginsberg read it himself, he sounds like a super smart robot hippie (it’s dead on, uncanny really).
“Babies in the Tomatoes!” is such a funny mental picture, every time I see a big gleaming pile of those uniform, red, unblemished tomatoes you get at big box stores. I see them and I remember Ginsberg’s babies chilling in big pile of them. If they come from the Sunshine state they are probably the “Florida Round” variety and with a name like that you are probably expecting a straightforward and un-fussed with tomato. I've been burned by so many of these perfect looking beauty pageant tomatoes that I’ve come to expect nothing but disappointment from them. They look great! All sun ripened and fresh looking. Simple, red, and round. But as soon as you take one bite you realize the lights are on but no one is home, they are completely lacking soul. You might as well be eating a red water balloon; it’s a big grainy mouthful and it tastes like it was made in a lab. What’s going on?
You say "tomato," I say "crap"
What hides behind the Pantone perfect hues? What lurks under the glaring fluorescents and dripping misters? (and what IS Garcia Lorca doing over by those watermelons?)...Do we know the road that this food traveled to get here? The hands that picked it, the backs that stooped to bring us the season’s bounty? What do they put on these things to make them look so good anyway? We may know part of the story, but the truth is there is a lot going on behind that bright and flawless exterior. There are things we don’t know about going down in the humid farmlands of the western edge of the Everglades…until now.

That is the topic of Barry Estabrooks' new book Tomatoland – How modern industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit. last Wednesday Mr. Estabrook stopped by Books & Books in the Gables, it’s a great venue, and as he well noted “theres a bar!” His delivery was approachable, intense and light hearted at the same time, a feat only possible by people well versed in what they write about. Sometimes you go to a book signing and well, your mind can start to wander. This one on the other hand was entertaining. He struck me as a person who is passionate about what he does and lives the life he writes about and so I am looking forward to reading his book. I bought myself a copy and plan on making it next on my summer reading list, (I can't believe I’m almost done with Superfudge already!) 

Abe Froman - Sausage King of Chicago

Dude, he said tomato! DRINK!
The turnout at the event was good; Emissaries from the hinterlands beyond South Miami were there. Amongst the attendees were moms, hipsters, hipster- activists (think Sally Jesse Raphael glasses and an ironic Save Ferris t-shirt), foodies, foodies with tattoos about food, garden gurus, women of the earth, crotchety old men, elves, chichi-mamas, patchouli-hounds, some tomato growers, and a few regular people just getting into the whole “what’s in my food?” thing. There was interest in the topic and that’s a nice thing to see. They have these events often and it’s a nice chance to meet authors and grab a coffee…or a drink. THERES A BAR! No drinking games though. But it’s nice to kick back with a beer or a glass of vino and listen to people speak about something they are passionate about.

It’s hard to review a book you haven’t read. So I’ll talk about the chat and the overall subject matter as it was discussed. This book seemingly peels back the layers of a world unknown to many but one that influences all of us and the communities in which we live.  As well said by Mr. Estabrooks, it is a complicated and delicate topic; covering topics beyond just the greatness that is the tomato, or should be. Tomatoland digs deeper into the path tomatoes take from field to table. There are elements of modern day slavery, labor abuse and rampant pesticide use. It’s not a pretty story but one that is worthy of discussion and one which we should be made aware of. We eat tomatoes probably a few times a week, so we should probably know as much as we can about it in order to make good decisions about what we consume. 

A nice haul from a winter market trip. Where did it come from? The Redland!
Some reviews have said it’s in the vein of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” so I’m sure it’ll be a good read. And apparently it’s not all doom and gloom, as Mr. Estabrook mentioned at the close of the chat: the book offers some answers and solutions to what can be done to bring back a tasty tomato. It's a simple idea with many working parts. Tomatoes…who knew they could be so damn complicated!  Some of you may know Barry Estabrook for his food related writings in The Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic, Saveur, and Men’s Health as well as his role as contributing editor to the now defunct Gourmet magazine. In which he won a James Beard award for his article on tomato pickers in Florida (the genesis of this book). I enjoy reading his articles as well as his blog; Politics of the Plate. If you haven’t read his work, I urge you to click on the above links and Google away till you find some of his articles, its good stuff!     

In case anyone missed it, this is the Presidents birth certificate, can we take a look at the economy now?
You ever notice that whenever immigration and labor are discussed things tend to get a little tense? It’s a difficult topic to address. Tempers flare, opinions are brandished, blast-shields go up and once that rabbit is out of the hat, words like “socialist” and “long form birth certificate” start getting tossed around and it becomes a “no fun zone” rather quickly. That’s why I tend to avoid those conversations and keep politics to myself but in the case of Tomatoland, these topics are tightly woven into the fabric of this story, it’s an essential part of the story. But regardless of personal politics I like to think we can all agree on humanity and in doing what’s right for people, or at least it’s nice to believe that we do.  

Whats not to miss about this! Another delicious haul of winter local goodness

I have to be honest with you, recently I had my head stuck deep in the clouds no thanks to what I am calling “post harvest season slump”...(Pfizer is working on a pill to combat PHSS as we speak, it renders your taste buds useless but it helps) It was weird, I was really bummed out at the end of the growing season, all the fresh greens and nice weather, it’s kind of one of the reasons you live here. But thanks to my wife saying that she missed the blog (nice to have a personal cheerleader) combined with the syrupy sweet smell of the summers first mangos and lychees, I can honestly say I’m back on the horse. A quick thanks my friend, Kristen Jayd from the Homestead Farmers Market, for cluing me into the event.  
Redland raised heirlooms!
But back to tomatoes…what’s the big deal anyway? Well…As a species it seems we are obsessed with them, in 2008 the world production of tomatoes was 129 million tons! The entire multi-million dollar industry of Florida winter tomatoes is possible because of the Eastern seaboards lust for this fruit. People up north pined for that sweet, tangy summertime delicacy deep into the winter of their discontent. Those red winter tomatoes were a ray of sunlight to cleave their slushy, shivering misery in twain (ok maybe that’s a bit much, but they did want tomatoes pretty badly). And so, an empire was born in the Sunshine state (natural requirements of the tomato plant be damned!). Mankind (and cheap labor, petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides) would find a way to grow dry-loving plants in soggy swampland, and so they did, and here we are today in the winter tomato capital of the world. Not too bad for a little fruit from the dry lands of Latin America. But what we eat today bares only a passing resemblance to the fruit that the conquistador Hernan Cortez brought back to the Spanish court.    
Truth is modern-day tomatoes are a shadow of their former selves. That’s why I am so partial to heirloom varieties. It’s only with heirloom varieties that we can taste what one day was the norm, 90% of the time you can count on an heirloom to deliver the goods. Why? Because long ago, before modern agriculture went off and spent that summer backpacking in Europe and then came back listening to techno, smoking cloves and looking all industrialized and revolutionized, someone way back then, ate a great-great grand pappy tomato and said “WOW! That’s worth saving!” Heirlooms are super tasty and grow well in most gardens, especially if it’s a local heirloom, since they can be more forgiving about pests and fluctuations in temperature and water. The result is a hardier plant more used to growing in those conditions (the genius!) I’ve heard stories of a summer fruiting “Everglades cherry tomato” that is supposed to be really good; I’m still looking for one to put in my yard and in my salad. 
heir·loom (âr l m ) n.
1. A valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations.
2. An article of personal property included in an inherited estate.
3. A cultivar of a vegetable or fruit that is open-pollinated and is not grown widely for commercial purposes. An heirloom often exhibits a distinctive characteristic such as superior flavor or unusual coloration.
Heirlooms of all types are a labor of love, selected, cared for and preserved for future generations to enjoy by individuals who understood the importance of saving and perpetuating these flavors, every bite is a testament to their dedication and we owe these people a “cheers” next time we open a worthy beverage, “To Flavor!” This may be a highly romanticized version of events, but I like the thought of it. That people long ago also cared about the food they ate and how it tasted. That like people, heirlooms each carry their own distinguishing characteristics; they are varied and different to the point of seeming flawed but the guts are true to the core. Simply put, they got soul baby! And you can taste it!

To put it in pop culture terms, let’s just say Heirlooms are the John Coltrane of tomatoes (sans the little heroin problem). They are just solid, unadulterated soul-beasts, oozing flavor from every pore; they can’t help but be so smooth! In contrast, commercially grown tomatoes can be more like Kenny G…sure its music, but it all kind of has that same bland flavor, you know what I’m talking’s a tomato, but without the stuff that makes it a tomato…you dig?

A box of conventionally grown heirlooom tomatoes from Teenas Pride

Green Zebras - look green, taste ripe!
“So where can you get these marvelous tomatoes you keep talking about?!” That part is also easy, at least in the winter, just head to your local farmers market. Chances are there will be at least one grower with some solid tomatoes. I already have my “delicious tomato people” identified, my favorite come from Margie at Bee Heaven Farm. (check out the new farm store!) Certified organic and always bursting with flavor, always tasting as good as they look. Her busy tent is a fixture at lots of markets in South Dade. I also have gotten some tasty beauties from Teenas Pride in the Redland, and from Worden Farm out in Punta Gorda. It’s easy to find good lcal tomatoes in winter, it gets a bit tougher in the summer though, I think the variety goes down a bit, You can get some good ones that come from Central & North Florida this time of year. The main thing to do is talk to the vendors and find out where their stuff comes from, most will be happy to tell you, and if they don't then maybe consider buying from someone who can tell you about what they sell, the good ones always do. My main market stops are Pinecrest Farmers Market and Homestead Farmers Markets as well as the South Miami Green Market, all of them are great places to find local and close to local tomatoes and produce. 

One of the things said in closing at the Tomatoland reading was that tomatoes “are only as good as what you put in them”, something true of just about anything, including people. This struck a chord with me that night for some reason. Well, who am I kidding I know the exact reason this caught my attention and that’s because Mrs. Redroots and I are expecting a little sprout this coming December, our first, so I find myself thinking about babies a lot more often than I used to. It’s a notable responsibility shift for us; a big dog is one thing…babies…are a whole other ballgame. (That is easily the understatement of the year I realize that). But game changers are good, or so it says in the other book I’m reading; Spending Money, Peace of Mind & Me Time: 100 Things Fathers-to-Be Can Say Goodbye To. I’m joking of course, Today we found out that we will be having a son, and I can't wait to meeting him and show him the world in which we live. I'm going to be someones
Undoubtedly as soon as you hear the news that you will be someone's parental unit, the thoughts of what one must do to raise an upstanding citizen run through your mind. It’s your responsibility to make sure they are safe and loved and fed. To make sure they learn right from wrong, have solid common sense (this is a huge one) to speak correctly and openly. To be kind and fair, know how to cook and always remember their table manners. Bread on the left, drinks to the right. To know that the only permissible utensils for eating ribs are your hands. To know how to eat crawfish properly. You know…simple stuff, dreams we ALL have…except for maybe some of that really specific food related stuff… But there will be time enough for all that once he's born; right now we’re enjoying our little sprout as he grows every day, feeding him summers flavors, getting him used to enjoying local food and making sure he’s healthy, what an amazing time. So who knows what adventures await us in the coming season?! What foods, what feasts will come. Only time and fortune will tell. I’ll be sure to post some of the good stuff we come across this summer. Until then keep it as local as your cravings will allow and thanks for reading.
High five-ing my sons Godfather; the Skunk Ape
in Ochopee, Big Cypress