Monday, September 5, 2011

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes




            It’s hot. It’s sticky. I’m bored and then I see them. Little red orbs of squishy goodness. I’ll just take a few of the rotten ones and “Plop! Plop! Plop!” And as soon as you know it, there is a full tomato fight in the neighborhood and nobody’s plant is safe.
            Ah, there’s nothing better than a fresh ripe tomato for eating (or throwing). We grew them all the time in our garden as kids. Delicious. But the funny thing was the way we ate them. We had them sliced fresh with sugar sprinkled on top or made into what my mother called “tomato shakes”- which were basically V-8 smoothies (they taste better than they sound).
            And for those who know their biology, this would make some sense. Tomatoes are biologically classified as fruits.[1] Huh? Well, remember that talk your parents had about the birds and the bees? It’s exactly the same. Bees are crucial in the development of fruits because they take pollen from stigma to stamens of flowers, triggering fertilization of the flowers ovaries. Those fertilized eggs then become seeds and the “fruit.” (e.g. In an apple, the seeds are the ripened ovules, and the fleshy part you eat are the ripened ovaries that contain the seeds) So technically speaking, a lot of the produce we call vegetables, are fruits, such as nuts, beans, and carrots.
And contrary to what many Italians might believe, tomatoes are not from Europe. They originated from South America and were brought by the Spanish Conquistadores to Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. But the famed tomato recipes of Italy? That didn’t come until the late 17th and 18th centuries.[2]
And tomatoes now? They have been cultivated pretty much everywhere with a temperate climate. China is now the world leader in tomato production, with 33.8 million tons a year.[3] For plum or processing tomatoes (the ones you get in cans/tins), California leads the pack in the US, producing 90% of all processed tomatoes. Florida also produces 30% of fresh commercial tomatoes – and nearly all the tomatoes seen in grocers during the fall and winter months.
If any of you have eaten a tomato during those times of the year, you are in for a disappointment. They may look like a tomato, but they sure don’t taste like it. In fact, I don’t even think they look like a tomato – they look like a tomato that someone has made to look like a “tomato.”
The accusation is not off-base. The tomatoes that most Americans eat at the grocery store are of one of the “Flor” or “Mana” varieties (these include Floramericas, Floradade, Floradel, Manalucie and Manapal). They are bred for disease and heat resistance as well as their ability to withstand Florida’s high humidity. But their inbred resistance does not prevent these plants from being doused with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides (and probably any other “cides” you can think of) – a 110 of them to be in fact.[4] And it’s not just the number of chemicals that the farms use; it’s also the amount. Florida uses eight times as many chemicals as California tomato farmers use. Why? Because the American consumer wants a pretty tomato.[5]
And the plant abuse doesn’t stop there. Most plants are not grown in soil – they are grown in sand because of drainage and fertilizing ease. And when it comes time for harvest? These tomatoes are picked in their green unripe state because they are less susceptible to bruising (ever dealt with a super ripe tomato? See above,). How do they ripen? Not on the vine – with ethylene, a naturally occurring chemical in ripening fruits, but never meant for commercial use.[6]
But beyond the environmental and public health problems with this sort of cultivation, there is an even uglier side to the pretty tomato: labor. Tomatoes are labor-intensive plants. The seedlings must be planted by hand. Tomatoes are thinned by hand. Tomatoes are harvested by hand. In Barry Estabrook’s book, Tomatoland,[7] he describes the virtual slavery of the migrant workers in the tomato fields of Southern Florida. Many work 10 hours a day, in the hot sun with little or no breaks for shade, water or biological needs. They are constantly exposed to chemicals that are known carcinogens at rates 100 times above the EPA safety threshold. And all for about 45 to 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket picked (about 15 kg), a rate that has basically not changed in 20 years. While the farming industry claims that the workers are paid at least minimum wage ($7.31/hour or 5.04 Euros), the real wage is about $12.50.[8] The trick is that this wage is completely dependent upon the number of buckets picked. Less buckets equal less money. According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an agricultural worker organization, a worker would have to pick a bucket every two minutes – a physical and mathematical impossibility.[9]
But beyond the wage slavery endured by these workers is nothing compared the real slavery endured by many of these workers. Because the US agency in charge of workers’ rights, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers agricultural laborers are “contract” laborers, the usual rights accorded to most workers for a safe workplace are not applicable under the National Labor Relations Act[10] and the Fair Labor Standards Act[11]. Furthermore, due to the low social status and educational attainment of most of these workers (who are primarily Latino or Haitians), they are ripe for exploitation. Cases have been filed on their behalf by labor organizations such as CIW for practices such as beating, chaining workers, withholding wages, etc.[12]
Even in light of such cases, there still has been resistance by commercial farmers, distributors and corporations to alleviate the unjust working conditions and wage inequities rampant in the industry.[13] While CIW forced the hand of corporations such as Burger King, Publix, Wal-Mart and Kroger to inspect the labor conditions of their produce sources and sign a Fair Food[14] agreement, there is still much work to be done. CIW estimates that a $0.01 increase in the price per pound for fresh tomatoes at the retail level could make the difference between a starvation and a livable wage for agricultural workers. Except for the Whole Foods grocery chain, most grocers said no (including fuzzy feel good Trader Joe’s, which is owned by the giant German grocery conglomerate Aldi).
On this Labor Day, before you slice those tomatoes into your salad, or onto your burgers, or even slash on the ketchup, think about who grew and picked those tomatoes. You might have a day off, but for the millions of agricultural workers across the US, it’s another labor day – back in the fields.

Roasted Tomato Gazpacho
I have a love affair with gazpacho. I could eat it every day in the summer. It’s the best way to use all those summer tomatoes you have running round – including the super-ugly ones. In fact, if you have a chance to go to the farmers’ market and there are the ugly bruised tomatoes that no one wants, use them for this dish. No one is looking. And no – this recipe is not authentic in anyway – and that is fine with me. It’s just a nice cold soup to serve as an easy appetizer or a light lunch. And for Labor Day, who wants to labor any more than you have to? After all, you have to put away all your white clothing…Salud!

1 2-inch piece of stale bread, crust removed (white is best)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp of sea salt, plus more to taste
2 tbs. of sherry vinegar (the best you can find. If you don’t have it, use balsamic)
1 tsp. sugar
3 pds. whole tomatoes
½ c. of extra-virgin olive oil (best you can get)
pinch of cumin
pinch of pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika)

1.     Heat up a gas or charcoal grill. When ready (when your hand can only stand about 3 seconds above the grill), place tomatoes onto grill. Grill until the skins are charred all over. Take off grill and place in a paper bag.
2.     Soak bread in ½ cup of water for 1 minute, and then squeeze dry. Reserve bread and discard water.
3.     Peel tomato skins, core and seed. Chop coarsely. Set aside.
4.     If you have a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic with the salt until a paste forms. (Alternatively, you can use a garlic press and then mix the salt into the mashed garlic.) Place garlic and salt mixture into a food processor or blender, along with the vinegar, sugar, cumin, pimentón, bread and tomatoes, until the mixture is pureed. Then, in a steady stream while the motor is running, add olive oil, until the mixture smooth.
5.     If you want a smooth gazpacho, you can strain the mixture in a chinoise or a fine mesh strainer, discarding the solids. (I’m lazy. I don’t bother – it tastes fine.)
6.     Chill for at least 2 hours or until cold. Taste and add more salt and/or vinegar to taste. Serve cold. (Can be made 2 days ahead of time.)


[1] Although biologists will call tomatoes a fruit, the Supreme Court of the United States of America disagrees. In the 1883 case Nix v. Hedden, the Court held for tariff purposes, that fruits and vegetables should be called by their “ordinary” meaning vs. that of a biological or botanical meaning. I suspect that someone in the Court failed biology.
[2] The Spanish cultivated tomatoes as soon as they arrived back to Europe. Their use in Spanish cuisine came with the use of tomatoes in Meso-America and South America.
[3] I am still trying to figure out why this is. I suspect it has something to do with preservation and export. As China is the largest agricultural producer in East Asia, there is a lot of money to be made in tomatoes, especially as Asians eat more Western cuisine.
[4] The environmental group, Pesticide Action Network (PAN), has deemed some of the “cides” that Florida tomato users use as “bad actors” – the evilest in the lot. To see the full list of pesticides that PAN condemns, click here.
[5] This is not only true of tomatoes, but of produce in general. The dominance of the aesthetically standardized fruit or vegetable is bane of the grocery store. And we consumers have come to demand it. We really need a movement for ugly food.

[6] Have you ever placed a banana next to other fruit in a fruit bowl? Notice how quickly the rest of the fruit go on a ripening spree? That’s because of the ethylene. As bananas emit ethylene, it becomes a chemical catalyst for other fruits and vegetables to ripen. Other ethylene emitters are avocadoes, stone fruits, apples and pears. Best way to counter ethylene? Refrigeration retards the process.
[7] Estabrook, a former editor for the now defunct Gourmet magazine (RIP), has written previously on the dark side of agricultural production.
[8]Clark, Lesley. “Tomato pickers pay-probe sought.” Miami Herald. 16 April 2008.
[9] The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a coalition of agricultural workers advocating for fair wages and fair labor practices in Florida. It has been instrumental in pushing for higher wages and workers’ rights for agricultural laborers in Florida. To read more about their amazing work, click here.
[10] History lesson. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (otherwise known as the Wagner Act) basically gave workers the right to labor unions without retaliation from their employers. Noticeably, the persons that need this protection the most, agricultural workers, get no coverage from the act.
[11] Another history lesson. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set out most of the workers’ rights that most Americans are familiar with. These include minimum wage, overtime pay, and the abolition of “oppressed child labor.” Various amendments have come to strengthen the act with respect to agricultural labor, most recently the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act (MSPA) of 1983. MSPA requires all farm contractors to register with the US Department of Labor as well as setting minimum standards for the working conditions of agricultural workers, farms and farm contractors. But due to lack of inspection and budgetary cuts, the rules are rarely enforced.
[12] In a 2008 case US v. Navarrette, Chief Assistant US Attorney called the practices,  “slavery, plain and simple.”
[13] California is also no stranger to labor suits filed on behalf of agricultural workers. In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed against the state of California and the OSHA for failing to protect farm workers from heat related deaths and illnesses.
[14] The Fair Food Agreement was created by the CIW as a means for insuring the safety, welfare and well being of agricultural workers in Florida. By signing the Fair Food agreement, companies agreed to only buy produce sourced from fair labor farms.
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