Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

I got Tomatoland for one simple reason: I really like tomatoes. It’s one of the few things that I can thank my former stepmother for, other than providing me with two awesome sisters. If I wanted a snack, she would always slice up some tomatoes and sprinkle them with pepper and salt, sometimes with a little mayonnaise. She introduced me to tomatoes on grilled cheese, nothing short of a revelation for little 8 year old me. My wonderful Italian mom showed me what a tomato can do cooked, my step-mother what it could do raw. It was a beautiful childhood of tomato bliss.

But with every passing year, I’m getting pickier and pickier about which tomatoes I eat. The more I think about it, the mealier and more tasteless the tomatoes that you buy in the supermarket are. I’d almost stopped buying them altogether before I read Tomatoland. Tomatoland convinced me even more that the tomatoes from the grocery store, especially the ones available in the winter, are just not worth it.

Taste is the obvious reason. Every single one of us can go to the supermarket and tell the difference between a tomato grown locally and in the summer versus one grown in Florida in the winter. Estabrook makes clear that that is because the organization that regulates the tomatoes that come out of Florida regulate for every single aspect of a tomato – color, shape, texture, blemishes – except taste.

The second problem with tomatoes grown in the winter is that, if they are not grown in a hot house, they are grown in Florida or California. The problem with growing tomatoes in Florida is that it just happens to be one of the worst places in the world to grow tomatoes. In order to do so successfully, Florida tomato growers rely heavily on dangerous pesticides and chemicals to fight off pests and diseases and to put nutrition in the soil, which is actually just sand.

And now we get to the heart of Tomatoland, the mistreatment of migrant workers, especially concerning pesticide use, on tomato farms. This was not necessarily the turn that I expected Tomatoland to take, but I was so happy that it did. This is an important cause and an important topic that everyone needs to know about. When you purchase a tomato, you are making a choice. Are you going to support the abuse and slavery of the people who pick those tomatoes? Some of the things that Estabrook talks about will horrify you, from babies being born with deformities because of their parents’ exposure to pesticides to examples of modern day slavery.

A lot of work has been done in the last 10 years to make the life of migrant workers country-wide, but especially in Florida, better. And it’s a start, but big agriculture in the United States isn’t going to listen to us unless we make them. Tomatoland highlighted the best and worst of what’s happening in Florida so that anyone who reads the book can make an informed decision about where and how they get there tomatoes.

Estabrook does a good job balancing the political with the scientific. He interviews people on both sides of the debate and shows big agriculture in a fair light in my opinion. Not a good one, but a fair one. He shows what they have done horribly wrong and what they are doing, however reluctantly, to improve it. Things are getting better in the tomato industry, but it is all because of groups of people who were well-informed and willing to take a stand. The only shortcoming of this book is that I wish Estabrook had ended with a clearer sense of what still needs to be done. I would have rather had a final chapter that projected the future for tomatoes and the industry, as well as the future for migrant workers in the US.

I truly didn’t expect to be as enthralled with Tomatoland as I was, but I found it to be an engaging and well-written piece of non-fiction that has the power to change the way people view their tomatoes. Hopefully it will convince people that the best place to get tomatoes is their own back yard.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve read everything else

Desperado Penguin also has a review about Tomatoland. Do you? Link to it in the comments and I’ll add it here.

I received Tomatoland for review from NetGalley

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12 thoughts on “Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

  1. I’m a tomato lover that won’t eat them in winter too! (I do use the canned ones in soups and the like.) Anyway, as someone interested in the ethics of consumerism, I’m putting this straight on the TBR list. All the more reason to join CSAs, eh?

    1. Yes!! Next summer I will officially be joining a CSA. I’m moving to NY and I’ve already picked out one that I’m thinking about joining. I’ve also already scoped out the farmer’s markets in the area.

  2. Great review, Lu. Like Eva, I am adding this one to my TBR list. I am always excited to see tomatoes at my local farmer’s market!

    1. We just got tomatoes in the past couple of weeks and they are delicious! I ate one today and it was out of this world.

  3. Store tomatoes are always sourly bland. And orange. Blech. When I was a kid I remember my dad eating them sliced with salt and pepper, and they were a beautiful red color.

  4. I never buy grocery store tomatoes unless I need them for a recipe–and then I try to use canned. They’re too gross and mealy otherwise. Last year, my CSA gave us three different different types of heirloom tomatoes one week. They were ugly, but soooo delicious. Each type tasted different, and together they made a wonderful sliced tomato buffet. I’d much rather have ugly but yummy than pretty but mealy and unethically grown.

  5. This sounds like something I’d find very interesting. I actually don’t care too much for tomatoes but I still think this sounds like a great book.

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