‘Tomatoland’ author to speak Monday at WSU about finding the perfect — and humanely produced — tomato
Big, red, ripe and tasty.
That’s what a tomato used to be, according to author Barry Estabrook.
Estabook, who will speak Monday at Winona State University, published a book, “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,” where he explores why tomatoes aren’t as fresh and appetizing as they once were.
During the process of reporting and writing the book, he said, he discovered what amounted to slave labor in the industry, with migrant workers plucking and harvesting the Florida-grown fruit subjected to some of the harshest working conditions imaginable.
The Daily News spoke with Estabrook about what makes a perfect tomato, the workers he encountered and how the industry has been transformed in recent years. The interview has been edited for clarity.
For those of who don’t know, what are tomatoes supposed to taste like?
A sweet antacid taste, like a good red wine. People younger than 40 years old haven’t experienced a true tomato. But they’re getting easier and easier to find. I encourage people to grow their own.
How can Winonans avoid industrialized tomatoes and find the tastiest ones?
Most towns and cities have their local farmers market nowadays. My rule of thumb: The farther they grow from your kitchen counter, the worse off you are. We, as consumers, have the ultimate power. We make decisions. Buying at the farmers market is the way.
You discovered what was essentially modern-day slavery in Florida. Did that surprise you? Had you heard rumors of migrant worker abuse?
I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I decided to go to Florida purely for taste. I was reporting for my magazine at the time, Gourmet, doing a story about why the taste of tomatoes was bad. When I was down there the local newspaper broke the story. Migrant workers as slaves, chained to the back of their trucks. I wasn’t aware of the abuse. It boiled down to the fact that the people picking (tomatoes) were at the bottom of the economic ladder.
What are you most proud of with Tomatoland?
I was most proud of the light shed on a group of extremely hard-working, good people, in all senses of the word, and the conditions they were forced to work in.
What changes has your book and other reporting led to?
The industry has been transformed 180 degrees to the positive. Workers are getting 50 percent raises. Ironically, tomato companies seem happier with the situation. Workers are a little better paid and are a happier workforce with less grievances. Everyone realized it’s what’s best. ... The industry is making great strides. It’s not what it once was.
What’s your next project?
I’m currently working on a book about pork. It’s similar. Sheds light on how food is produced. It’ll be a thorough examination. I hope to finish it next summer. Hopefully it’ll be due out sometime in 2015.