As an American, I did not really know much of the American fruit we call “tomatoes” until I took a trip to Sardinia.
You see, in Sardinia we bought our tomatoes from a truck that came to our village on certain days. A man with a bull horn called out his offerings to the population at an eardrum-busting level. Women, largely dressed in black, scuttled from every corner of the village to buy the man’s fine tomatoes. So did Martha and I.
As the summer progressed, the tomatoes got cheaper. By September, when we asked the man for our usual 6 or 8 tomatoes, he gave us a look as if we were daft (by which I mean nuttier than usual, as he had always regarded us a bit strangely). He thrust the tomatoes into our hands. We waved some money but he wouldn’t take it. Strano.
Then we noticed that everyone was buying crates of tomatoes. We looked around and saw Sardinia’s four and a half foot tall women hoisting crates onto their noggins and heading home.
Yes, the last of the year’s tomatoes had gotten so cheap that they were being sold in bulk. So that’s why people had been washing all their spare wine bottles and getting out the beer capper. Yes, for tomato sauce. The next few days were fragrant indeed.
When we went to visit Armando, the local chef, we found him busy making sun dried tomatoes out of a couple of crates his wife Irene had bough from the truck. He halved them, salted the halves, and let them sit in the sun for a time. When they went all wilty, he took a basil leave and placed it in a half, then took the other tomato half and placed it on top and twisted the two halves together. The last bit of moisture remaining suctioned the pieces together as the air between them was removed. Then he laid the cut packages out to finish drying.
“For soups,” he told us.
What got me to recounting this experience was an article about American tomatoes I just read from the now defunct Gourmet Magazine online.
The article is about how America gets its tomatoes. It is not pretty at all. You see, unlike the Sardinian experience which emphasized the joy of buying and eating good tasting tomatoes until they the local growing season ended, Americans seem to enjoy crappy, hard tomatoes at a cheap price all year around. It is one of the many privileges of being American. Unbelievably inexpensive crap food 24/7. But even crap comes at a price. You do know that, don’t you? The work in Florida is, well, even harder than the canine-snapping tomatoes being harvested:
Tomato harvesting involves rummaging through staked vines until you have filled a bushel basket to the brim with hard, green fruits. You hoist the basket over your shoulder, trot across the field, and heave it overhead to a worker in an open trailer the size of the bed of a gravel truck. For every 32-pound basket you pick, you receive a token typically worth about 45 cents—almost the same rate you would have gotten 30 years ago.
Wow, now there’s a wage only a conservative Republican can like. Wages unchanged in 30 years. Think on it. And I’m not about to ruin your supper by giving you a description of the conditions under which the people live. You’ll just have to read this: Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes
I hope from all this you’ll come away with an appreciation of decent food harvested with respect and all for a fair price. The economy might thank you some day.
As a side note, some of you have taken me to task for comparing prices in Italy to prices at Whole Foods. Well, here’s the thing. Good, decent food costs:
So far, Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, which means that it has promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses and, when buying tomatoes, to a pay a price that supports a living wage.