Summertime is upon us, and one of the things that means is tomatoes fresh and ripe from the fields. In theory, anyway. In reality, much of what we find in the supermarkets are even in summertime those overbred and under ripened billiard balls that pass for tomatoes these days. How did we get here? The newly published Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World: A History, by William Alexander, brings the paste to bind the story together.
In truth, the book tells its story as much through tomato products and recipes, such as Heinz ketchup and pizza, as from an actual ten tomatoes, but the abovementioned supermarket tomato—the Florida Green Mature—does indeed get its own chapter.
It’s hard to imagine a vegetable—or, for that matter, any food—with a worse reputation than the Florida tomato, which for over half a century has been derided, demonized and vilified. Yet, even while becoming the embodiment of tasteless and soulless factory food, ”a general metaphor for our dissatisfaction,” in the words of journalist Arthur Allen, the Florida tomato changed the way America eats. Fresh tomatoes were once an eagerly awaited seasonal—and local—treat to be enjoyed a precious few months out of the year, their first appearance at farm stands signifying for many the true beginning of summer.
Now we eat tomatoes year-round, consuming a billion pounds per year, while sneering with nearly every bite. Alexander visited a tomato factory farm in Florida to learn as much as he could about the Florida tomato from start to finish. Out in the fields, he watched migrant workers stripping green tomatoes off a bush, filling a 32-pound bucket, carrying it to a truck in return for a token worth 60 cents in wages, and then on to more plants, all in just 90 seconds. He watches tomatoes tossed into bins that hold 1000 pounds of the greenies, dumped onto conveyor belts, bounced around and battered as they are sorted—one 1977 study found that Florida tomatoes could withstand an impact greater than 2 and a half times the federal standards for car bumpers. And he watched them get gassed with the ethylene gas used to ripen them (in fact, he’s shocked to learn they’re being gassed as he stands there in the room; at these levels, ethylene—used in the making of plastic and Styrofoam—is not harmful to humans, he is assured by the company men accompanying him.)
Though these commercial tomatoes are bred to be picked unripe and hard and able to withstand long-distance shipping and weeks in storage, all at the cost of flavor and texture, in the end Alexander comes to the conclusion that the real culprit is Florida itself. The sandy soil requires massive inputs of pesticides and fertilizers, and the December Florida sunshine provides 40% less sugar-producing photosynthesis than a summertime Jersey tomato receives. While breeders continue the search for a better indestructible tomato, it is doubtful it will ever make that much difference. The Florida tomato, like the Florida Man, will remain an object of derision.
Of course, the tomato was not always prized as a foodstuff, and much of the early part of the book tells this tale. A native of the New World, the tomato, unlike such other discoveries as chocolate and tobacco, met with initial disdain in Europe, even in Italy. The Conquistador-era missionary Bernardino de Sahagún compiled lengthy studies of the Aztecs, including the use of tomatoes in cuisine, but the Vatican suppressed his work until 1829, labelling it too sympathetic to the heathen culture. The Renaissance also re-embraced some Ancient Greek notions of health, particularly regarding the connection between various foods and the ‘humors’—blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Tomatoes were categorized as a cold, wet food unconducive to health. In the early years of the United States, tomatoes caught on earlier, in part perhaps due to its use in cooking by slaves. The well-known folklore about early Americans believing tomatoes were poisonous until a certain Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the steps of the Salem, New Jersey courthouse and ate a basketful before a stunned crowd gets a solid debunking in the book.
We learn lots of history, and the author has a sardonic tone that leavens the tale with a lot of humor. The rise of the San Marzano tomato and its ascent to a central place in Italian cuisine gets told. Tomatoes were at the center of a mid-1800s health craze, labeled the “Popular Health Movement,” that was set off in part by a cholera epidemic, and which fostered a widespread mistrust of science and conventional medicine. The author doesn’t shy away from pointing out the parallels to today.
Canning and food safety come into view, especially in the chapter about ketchup. The condiment was originally made from the slop and floor sweepings left over from canning tomatoes, and thus was a very localized product, with hundreds of brands around the country. Enter Henry Heinz to revolutionize the industry both in production and marketing, and in reluctantly taking the lead in national food safety standards. We learn, that the Heinz put up the first large electric sign in New York City, and that at the beginning of the 20th Century, Heinz was a faster-growing Pittsburgh company than even US Steel, Carnegie and Westinghouse. We learn why Heinz ketchup is so slow to pour out of the bottle, and we learn that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh puts ketchup on spaghetti.
The penultimate chapter of the book takes a look at the rise of the heirloom tomato to be found in summertime farmers markets in the country, small towns and big cities alike. So go get yourself some if you can, make a nice salad, and sit back to enjoy this fun book.
THIS WEEK’S NEW HARDCOVERS
I also publish a comment in one of the Black Kos diaries on Tuesdays and Fridays with new releases of particular interest to the community there. The first four books here are featured in today’s comment. You can read the rest of the selection HERE.
How to Raise an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. Following the accessible genre of his internationally bestselling How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi combines a century of scientific research with a vulnerable and compelling personal narrative of his own journey as a parent and as a child in school. The tragedies and reckonings around racism that are rocking the country have created a specific crisis for parents, educators, and other caregivers: How do we talk to our children about racism? How do we teach children to be antiracist? How are kids at different ages experiencing race? How are racist structures impacting children? How can we inspire our children to avoid our mistakes, to be better, to make the world better? This is one of my 15% off new book picks of the week, and your DAILYKOS 15% discount stacks on top of that.
Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation, by Linda Villarosa. Based on the author’s 2018 New York Times Magazine article on maternal and infant mortality among black mothers and babies in America. Hundreds of studies had previously established a link between racial discrimination and the health of Black Americans, with little progress toward solutions. But Villarosa's article exposing that a Black woman with a college education is as likely to die or nearly die in childbirth as a white woman with an eighth grade education made racial disparities in health care impossible to ignore. Now, in Under the Skin, Linda Villarosa lays bare the forces in the American health-care system and in American society that cause Black people to “live sicker and die quicker” compared to their white counterparts.
We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys, by Erin Kimmerle.
Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle investigates of the notorious Dozier Boys School—the true story behind the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Nickel Boys—and the contentious process to exhume the graves of the boys buried there in order to reunite them with their families. The Dozier Boys School was a well-guarded secret in Florida for over a century, until reports of cruelty, abuse, and “mysterious” deaths shut the institution down in 2011. Established in 1900, the juvenile reform school accepted children as young as six years of age for crimes as harmless as truancy or trespassing. The boys sent there, many of whom were Black, were subject to brutal abuse, routinely hired out to local farmers by the school’s management as indentured labor, and died either at the school or attempting to escape its brutal conditions.
A Way Out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation, and the New American Story, by Sen. Raphael G. Warnock.
On the heels of his historic election to the United States Senate, Raphael G. Warnock shares his remarkable spiritual and personal journey. Senator Reverend Warnock occupies a singular place in American life. As senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and now as a senator from Georgia, he is the rare voice who can call out the uncomfortable truths that shape contemporary American life and, at a time of division, summon us all to a higher moral ground.
Other notable new releases this week:
One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America, by Nick Seabrook. This surprising, compelling book tells the history of how we got to this moment—from the Founding Fathers to today’s high-tech manipulation of election districts—and shows us as well how to protect our most sacred, hard-fought principle of one person, one vote. Here is THE book on gerrymandering for citizens, politicians, journalists, activists, and voters.
Producing Politics: Inside the Exclusive Campaign World Where the Privileged Few Shape Politics for All of Us, by Daniel Laurison. The first book to uncover the hidden and powerful role campaign professionals play in shaping American democracy by delving into the exclusive world of politicos through off-the-record interviews.
Bitch: On the Female of the Species, by Lucy Cooke. Since Charles Darwin, evolutionary biologists have been convinced that the males of the animal kingdom are the interesting ones—dominating and promiscuous, while females are dull, passive, and devoted. In Bitch, Cooke tells a new story. Whether investigating same-sex female albatross couples that raise chicks, murderous mother meerkats, or the titanic battle of the sexes waged by ducks, Cooke shows us a new evolutionary biology, one where females can be as dynamic as any male. This isn‘t your grandfather’s evolutionary biology.
Butler to the World: The Book the Oligarchs Don't Want You to Read - How Britain Helps the World's Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything, by Oliver Bullough. In his forceful follow-up to Moneyland, Oliver Bullough unravels the dark secret of how Britain placed itself at the center of the global offshore economy and at the service of the worst people in the world.
Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, by Michael R. Gordon. Wall Street Journal national security correspondent Michael R. Gordon reveals the strategy debates, diplomatic gambits, and military operations that shaped the struggle against the Islamic State. With extraordinary access to top U.S. officials and military commanders and to the forces on the battlefield, Gordon offers a riveting narrative that ferrets out some of the war’s most guarded secrets.
The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier, by April White. For a woman traveling without her husband in the late nineteenth century, there was only one reason to take the train all the way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one sure to garner disapproval from fellow passengers. On the American frontier, the new state offered a tempting freedom often difficult to obtain elsewhere: divorce.
Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass, by Frank Close. The first major biography of Peter Higgs, revealing how a short burst of work changed modern physics: the Higgs boson, the missing piece in understanding why particles have mass
Heavy Metal: The Hard Days and Nights of the Shipyard Workers Who Build America's Supercarriers, by Michael Fabey. An extraordinary story of American can-do, an inside look at the building of the most dangerous aircraft carrier in the world, the John F. Kennedy.
All book links in this diary are to my online bookstore The Literate Lizard. If you already have a favorite indie bookstore, please keep supporting them. If you’re able to throw a little business my way, that would be appreciated. Use the coupon code DAILYKOS for 15% off your order, in gratitude for your support (an ever-changing smattering of new releases are already discounted 15% each week). We also partner with Hummingbird Media for ebooks and Libro.fm for audiobooks. The ebook app is admittedly not as robust as some, but it gets the job done. Libro.fm is similar to Amazon’s Audible, with a la carte audiobooks, or a $14.99 monthly membership which includes the audiobook of your choice and 20% off subsequent purchases during the month.
READERS & BOOK LOVERS SERIES SCHEDULE
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