Livingston and the Tomato
by A.W. Livingston
A. W. Livingston and Sons, 1893; Ohio State UP, 1998.
Paperback: 226 pages, ISBN: 978-0814250099
by Barry Estabrook
Andrews McMeel, 2011
Hardcover: 220 pages, ISBN: 978-1449401092
I only want to eat tomatoes. I may never eat a tomato again.
Those are the dueling impressions I have after reading two books—Livingston and the Tomato, from 1893, and Barry Estabrook's chilling Tomatoland, from 2011. In the former, A.W. Livingston, a 19th century farmer and the favorite son of Reynoldsburg, Ohio (which claims to be “The Birthplace of the Tomato” because of him) details his great success carefully breeding better and tastier tomatoes during a time when “the love apple” was thought to be poisonous in many kitchens.
Until Livingston's time, wild tomatoes were often used as mantel ornaments, and when they were eaten, they were mostly considered to be “odious and repulsive smelling berries.” In 1845, Joseph T. Buckingham, editor of the Boston Courier, implored, “O ye caterers of luxuries, ye gods and goddesses of the science of cookery! deliver us from tomatoes.”
Livingston's book takes us back to that time of tomato-skepticism—Livingston himself considered it his hardest task to learn to like his own crop—and back to that time of overwrought rhetoric. In his “Biographical Sketch,” written in grandiose third person, Livingston suggests that he “is a man of large sympathies and vast experiences. Little children run to meet him, young people confide to him their secrets, [and] all love to see him coming. . .” Later, he says of his own tomato, “Livingston's Paragon,” “It was the first perfectly and uniformly smooth tomato ever introduced to the American public, or, so far as I have ever learned, the first introduced to the world.”
Through passages like these, we learn just as much about a salesman's self-promotion as we do about tomatoes, and that's a welcome respite in a book that spends a hundred pages cataloguing seeds. In fact, Livingston sounds like the main character from Paul Thomas Anderson's film There Will Be Blood, and we will agree with him when he tells us he's a tomato man.
Beyond his bravado, Livingston presents an attractive vision of old-fashioned agriculture: strong men lived by proverbs, close observation, and back-breaking work. He tells us of his 45-year struggle to produce delicious tomatoes that were commercially viable, and, most importantly, he warns against the wrong way to farm. He wants to root out seedy characters in the tomato trade. He rails against deceptive selling practices, irresponsible cross-breeding, and extensive use of pesticides, writing, “I know of nothing that can be put on the plant to kill these worms which will not also injure the plant.”
With an excellent forward by food historian Andrew F. Smith, Livingston and the Tomato provides juicy information about the cultural and culinary history of the tomato on this continent—from its origins in Central America, up through the southern U.S., and into Ohio (where none other than “Mrs. President RB Hayes” mastered her French Pickled Tomatoes—the recipe for which Livingston patriotically includes). Livingston shows himself to be the paragon of a mostly lost farming system as he painstakingly focuses on quality above all else. “Dame nature,” he tells us, “richly rewards those who keep close to her methods of operation,” and, as he explains his talents and his tomatoes, we can't help but love the fruit (or vegetable?) of his labor, that delicious, Ohio “love apple.” I only want to eat tomatoes.
In Tomatoland, on the other hand, Barry Estabrook shows us the dark, nightshady side of what he calls “Our most alluring fruit.” A James Beard Award-winning journalist, Estabrook begins with a story about driving behind a tomato truck near Naples, Florida. As a few tomatoes fall off the truck, Estabrook notices that they seem alarmingly invincible. He's frightened by these Lycopene-rich missiles, and his opening sentence—the imagined obituary, “Food Writer Killed by Flying Tomato”—becomes more and more ominous as he digs into the farming practices of agribusiness conglomerates in the town of Immokalee, Florida. Tomatoes, he finds, are in fact killers.
After a breezily written history of the tomatl, as it was known to the Aztecs, Estabrook explores how modern tomatoes have come to be. He discovers that winter-grown tomatoes, those flavorless bits of red pulp we get from grocery stores or Taco Bell, are essentially a dose of Raid. Florida tomato plants, he writes, are treated with “carcinogens, chemicals that cause damage to the brain and nervous system, chemicals that disrupt the reproductive system and cause birth defects, and chemicals that are so dangerous that even brief exposure can kill a person outright.” For reasons of extended shelf-life, Florida tomatoes are picked before they're ripe and then artificially “degreened” (an industry-term) in rooms that Estabrook calls “gas chambers.”
We get a sense, through pointed phrases like that, of his tough, muckraking-style. Estabrook wants to expose, and I found myself disgusted with what he revealed about tomato production. Still, his inveighing against pesticides read like well-worn ground, so it wasn't until he recounted the effects of those pesticides on workers that my stomach fully turned.
In his chapter, “Chemical Warfare,” Estabrook recounts the story of the Candelario family, tomato pickers whose son Carlos was born without arms or legs (sadly, he was not the only child of tomato-industry workers who suffered from this and similar conditions). Of Carlos's mother Francisca, who had worked for Ag-Mart Produce, Inc., Estabrook writes, “She described being coated in pesticides and suffering from dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and lightheadedness” during her pregnancy. But because Ag-Mart would have kicked her out of her company-owned home if she stopped working, she had to continue under those conditions.
Though there are federal regulations that prevent this misuse of pesticides, they are often ignored. For that reason, the Candelario family sued Ag-Mart, and Estabrook takes us through the case, including a damning deposition of an industry executive who knew all along the harm his employees were exposed to.
After reading of this episode, we may think that the story of the Florida tomato can't get much worse, but then he introduces us to Lucas Mariano Domingo who, along with his fellow-workers, was enslaved, kept in the back of a truck, beaten, threatened, and robbed. This is not an isolated incident in the tomato industry, according to Estabrook, and he believes the corporations bear much of the responsibility. He interviews United States attorney for Florida's Middle District, Douglas Molloy, who says that Immokalee is “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” “Any American,” Estabrook summarizes, “who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.” To this, Molloy responds, “That's not an assumption. That is a fact.”
I never want to eat a tomato again.
From this low point, though, Estabrook does see a light at the end of the tunnel, a ripe tomato at the end of the growing season. He profiles a half dozen advocates of the farm workers, most notably the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who successfully battled Taco Bell, Burger King, Whole Foods, and others, to earn more money for their members. He talks to anti-slavery activists who have seen some progress in Florida. And he turns his attention to tomato farmers who are producing delicious food and acting ethically—more like the venerable Mr. A.W. Livingston.
Curiously Estabrook references Livingston, our 19th century hero, calling him a “Great Man.” And yet, he suggests that Livingston's practices had unintended consequences. With his obsessive focus on uniform tomatoes, Livingston may have “[given] rise to the fresh tomato industry whose dubious benefits we reap today.”
In reading these two books, I begin to understand that continuum, where we went wrong. Livingston saw a space in the market for a consistent, commercial product and he filled it respectably, all the while warning about the nefarious practices that have come to dominate Estabrook's Florida. Now, many of the uniform tomatoes of the south are, as James Beard has written, “a total gastronomic loss.” But Estabrook, with a book that's by turns The Grapes of Wrath and The Orchid Thief, goes beyond food criticism. He digs into the badly poisoned soil that has given rise to the Florida tomato, this blood fruit.July 26, 2011