Saturday, June 14, 2008

On Poison Tomatoes...

I’m sure you have all heard about the salmonella contamination in our nation’s tomato supply.  Here’s a bit of a “foodie’s eye view” of this whole debacle…

I’m a big “Top Chef” fan.  I hang on every episode with a mixture of pride and longing.  I’m proud that this show legitimizes—even glamorizes—my chosen field.  But at the same time, I feel like a kid with my nose pressed against the glass of the candy store window.  I’m not a classically trained chef. Out here in the boondocks of northwest Oregon, I couldn’t make a living serving haute cuisine, using only fresh local ingredients, if I had the training.  I’m…well, I’m the proprietor of a cute little small-town café with aspirations to greatness.  I present the most up-to-date, upscale menu I can, taking into account that I need to appeal to the palates of retirees, cowboys, red-necks and young families looking for the next step up from McDonald’s and Burger King, if I want to put cash in the till.

So, I serve sandwiches and burgers and salads that appeal to the most unsophisticated of tastes.  And every good sandwich, burger and salad in the good ole U S of A includes a big, red, juicy slice of tomato.  I don’t know whose idea this originally was, but if I ever find out, I want to be the first to sink a butcher knife into his heart.

Let me first confess that I have a peculiar love/hate relationship with tomatoes.  I love any and every kind of prepared tomato product, from ketchup to marinara to salsa.  Cook it, doll it up in some manner, and I am the biggest tomato fan that ever lived.  But I have always hated raw tomatoes.  Even the juiciest home-grown fresh-off-the-vine tomato leaves me absolutely cold. 

Tomatoes are a very regional, very seasonal crop.  They’re pretty much only good from midsummer to early autumn; depending on what region of the country you live in.  Back in the Midwest, we would plant three tomato plants in June, and harvest enough to feed an entire neighborhood well into the last half of the year. The long days and hot nights were perfect tomato-growing conditions.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, however, you have to be very knowledgeable about which tomato varieties will actually thrive in our short, dry summers—hot by day, cool at night.  All in all, tomatoes just aren’t a very successful Northwest crop.

But that doesn’t stop Northwest diners from demanding them.

Lovely fresh tomatoes are only available in any part of the country for a few months every year; but that doesn’t stop diners all over the country from expecting tomatoes on their burgers, sandwiches or salads whenever they go out to eat, whether in July or mid-December.  Sometime around the middle of the last century, we became absolutely fascinated that—between the year-round growing seasons in California and Florida, and the “hot-house tomato” phenomenon—we could have tomatoes any time of the year, even in the most frozen reaches of the Midwestern winter tundra.  I remember those first mid-winter tomato offerings.  They were packed five or six to a plastic tray, heat sealed in cellophane.  The fact that they were hard, sickly orange, seemingly made out of the same cellophane in which they were wrapped and tasted not much better than plastic was lost on us.  They were tomatoes, and if we could have them in January, by god, we wanted them.

Fast-forward nearly half a century, to a world that has shrunk to the point that the word “regional,” when applied to produce, means it was grown somewhere in the same hemisphere.  I don’t have to wait until tomatoes are in season.  And I don’t have to count on the small and sometimes unreliable crops from Florida and California.  Mexico, Central America and South America can provide me with tomatoes year round.  Except…ripe tomatoes do not travel well, so they are picked and shipped well before they ripen  So…they are hard, sickly orange (or even green), and look and taste like plastic.  But we still buy them.  I honestly don’t know if anyone in this country knows how a fresh, raw tomato is supposed to look or taste.

Unfortunately, this global economy has backfired on us.  Back in the olden days, when the food we ate was at least grown somewhere in this country, we had some chance of regulating the growing methods.  As various pesticides, fertilizers, and agricultural practices were found to be harmful or dangerous, the government could ban the use of the product or practice that produced harmful results.  Now that our insatiable national appetite for out-of-season farm goods has caused us to tap into the world market with wild abandon, it’s not possible for us to monitor or regulate our food supply as closely as we once could.  We’re three weeks into this salmonella-tomato crisis, and the FDA still has not pinned down the source of the contaminated produce.  Not surprising, really, since the offending fruit could have come from anywhere in the world, and has been shipped all over the country.  This is pretty damned frightening.

As a restaurant owner, it’s a pain in my butt to have to deal with the very personal consequences of all these global shenanigans.  I have had to pull tomatoes off everything on my menu.  I am going to have to throw away half a case of perfectly good—albeit sickly orange, hard and probably nasty-tasting—tomatoes, all because Americans have developed an unsupportable craving for out-of-season produce. 

I understand that the world is shrinking, and we need to learn to live and trade in the global economy.  But when it comes to foods—what we put in our bodies—I think it’s vitally important that we get back to the basics.  We need to learn to love our fresh, local produce when it’s available.  And learn to live without it when it is not.  I think our lives, or at least our continued good health—depends upon it. 

“To everything there is a season…”   




thesheatons said...

What's scary is deciding to treat our food the same way you'd treat food in, say Mexico. Wash or cook the fruits and vegetables, cook the meat and boil the water. I'll be curious to hear how the salmonella got on the tomatoes. Fields downstream from from a chicken farm? Like the spinach grown next to a feed lot set up last year?


mutualaide said...

Your thoughts are far more eloquently expressed than mine on this subject.  Thoughts which are very much like your own.

I wait for the great, big, juicy, deep red, ripe Beefsteak tomatoes grown here on the east coast.  All winter long I wait.  It is a wait worth waiting.  Oh!  The flavor that bursts forth on the first bite ...

If I need tomatoes during the frozen winter months, canned work just fine ... in soups, sauces, etc.  These hard as rock, too perfectly round orbs that the stores attempt to pass off as edible are ... well, not edible!

sunflowerkat321 said...

I remember the fresh off the vine tomatoes at my grandmother's in Indiana.  There was nothing much better.  I've never been able to tolerate hot house tomatoes and I do without during the off season.  I actully pick them off the salads in a resteraunt.

It's part of our national mindset of accepting mediocrity just so we can "have it all" WHEN we want it.  We accept poorly made products that are cheaply made because everyone "needs" everything NOW.  This acceptance of substandard produce is in the same vein.  We surely are a country of spoiled brats.  Why can't we learn that the best things are worth waiting for.

ereading7 said...

Sorry to be reading and commenting so late,but very well said.