Here’s a once upon a time story about tomatoes.
Once upon a time, many, many years ago, I delivered vegetables to offices. Environmental organizations, lobby shops, law firms, public interest groups, government offices, even a real estate outfit or two.
The first year I did this it only took five shareholders to rate a delivery. However, by the time I stopped, still a long time ago, the requirement was twenty shareholders at an office to get a delivery.
How it would work is this: I would drive the farm truck up to the alley next to, say, a K Street law firm. (this is before the delivery van). People, mostly paralegals and legal secretaries dressed to the nines would descend the elevator from the firm’s suite and converge on the alley where I carefully arrayed the vegetable boxes.
Everyone would quickly collect their (and their boss’s) share and then, after five or ten minutes, I would get back into the truck and drive off to the next office.
Sometimes I would deliver to six or maybe eight offices in an afternoon.
But I’ve strayed somewhat off the topic. What I wanted to talk about is tomatoes.
Hundreds, if not thousands of tomatoes.
I remember the last year of delivering to offices, this is when it took twenty people signing up to get an office delivery. That year I was delivering to another law firm.
Not your regular law firm. This one was a spin off from and environmental organization. I had been delivering to them for two years. The first year we had a super abundant tomato crop.
The next, a scarcity.
The first year I would set up and during August put out 200 tomatoes for the 20 staff and attorneys shareholders.
The tomatoes that year, I remember, were beautiful. Large and plump and just brimming with juicy tomato meat. Yum!
I would put out four boxes of brandywines, big beef, Early Girls, Celebrities, Mortgage Lifters and another dozen or so varieties.
And the shareholders would go through the boxes and pick their selection for the day.
There was this one attorney. I remember her clearly because she was the only attorney that came down to select her own share (all the other attorneys sent someone in their stead.
She was also the one who felt it her duty to squeeze and pinch just about each and every tomato.
When she started the tomatoes were beautiful, perfect, tasty.
I think mouthwatering is the word.
And when she finished selecting her share, there would be an entire box of tomato soup.
Tomato juice seeping on the ground.
Wet tomatoes with ruptures.
Sticky tomatoes with splits, Bruises. Gashes.
Ugly tomatoes that no one would want to eat. (except for the pigs).
Did I mention the pigs? That year, the first thing I’d do when I got back to the farm from vegetable deliveries is stop by the hog pasture.
Back then we kept a couple of pigs and when I got home from vegetable deliveries the pigs would come running across their pasture. It was a game of who could get to the feeding trough first.
I’d pour the damaged vegetables into the trough and the first pig there would climb into the trough. Actually climb on top of the vegetables and lay down. Spreading out its body to keep the tomatoes all to itself. (and you might wonder how the name pig acquired the connotations its come to have)?
But I’ve got off the subject again. We were talking about tomatoes.
That’s when I started picking 25% more tomatoes than I intended to give out. Meaning? out of every 100 beautiful tomatoes picked in the morning, the selfish pig would be laying on 25 of them in the evening.
Which was doable in years of abundance.
But in years of scarcity it wasn’t acceptable.
And the next year was one of those years.
The next year, because of the weather, the damage from deer, tomato blights, turtles (have I told you about the turtle prison? The prison we set up for felonious turtles?)
The next year we couldn’t afford to throw away a fourth of our meager tomato crop.
The next year I had to make every tomato count, so instead of letting shareholders pick through the boxes, I handed out the tomatoes.
And what did I discover?
Well, while you give that some thought, here’s some bits and pieces to dwell on.
First, an important book.
Let’s see hands on this one. How many of you have read An Omnivore’s Dilemma? Here’s one just as important if not more so. David Kessler’s The End of Overeating. Kessler does an excellent job of looking at our commercial food system.
And since we’re reading, here’s a New York Times op-ed piece on tomatoes
‘You Say Tomato I say Agricultural Disaster’
He’s not just whistling in the dark either. One of the orchards I get the fruit share from grows tomatoes to supplement the things in his stand. Last week when I went out and picked up a dozen bushels 400 or so of his tomato plants were showing signs of blight.
When I went by yesterday, those plants were dead. The leaves were brown and crispy. The plants were dead with sorry looking tomatoes fallen on the ground.
And speaking of tomatoes here’s a fact for you. Depending on the season, something like 10% of our countries summer tomatoes are grown out on the Delmava Peninsula.
Particularly the Va part.
If it wasn’t for late blight this is about the time of year if you make the drive south from Salisbury towards the Bay Bridge/Tunnel that you would see trailer loads of tomatoes going up and down highway 13.
These are the same sort of trailers used to haul gravel. Only, instead of rocks on the bottom of the load these have tomatoes.
Green tomatoes with a dozen tons of other green tomatoes on top of it.
The question is, How do they do that, haul tomatoes like they were gravel without the bottom ones turning to tomato soup?
The answer is really pretty simple.
Tomatoes picked green are pretty much like rocks. They don’t have to be treated much different than gravel. And that’s just fine for the corporate food system when itws confronted with the problem of shipping a tomato half way around the world.
Vine ripened tomatoes pretty much can’t stand being picked and carried in from the back yard without bruising.
Green tomatoes don’t bruise.
They can bounce and bump and take all sorts of abuse but for several weeks they will just sit there gradually turning from green to red until after about two weeks they have turned red and look absolutely beautiful.
Only they aren’t.
These tomatoes that are picked green will never be like the one that’s grown in the back yard.
That’s why when you see them on your grocery store shelf looking all red and delicous, that’s why you can pick them up and pinch and squeeze them. It’s not going to do them any harm.
In there heart of hearts they are still going to be that rock of a tomato. And when you pinch it and detect that glimmer of softness what you’re feeling isn’t ripeness but the first signs that the thing is starting to rot.
It’s turning mushy inside.
There’s an easy test.
How do you tell the diffence between a tomato that’s vine ripened and one that was picked green and allowed to turn red in a shipping box.
Take a knife to both of them. When you cut into your average vine ripened slicer its going to drip juice.
One picked green isn’t going to have much juice inside. That’s because it was picked before it took on much water. Before it started getting tasty.
But, of course, that’s what the commercial food system needs. Not taste, who cares about taste? That’s way down on the list of desired characteristics. What they need is a tomato that can be shipped long distances and when they get there, they need tomatoes that are going to look good when they finally get to wherever they are going.
And the magic trade off is taste. Its and either/or. Either taste or the ability to ship. You can’t have both.
It can be shipped, but it will never be tasty.
And that’s really what’s going on with our environmental lawyer.
She’s wanting to have them both. Somewhere along the line she thought she could get it to and being dedicated with our tomatoes she was only carrying out what she practiced at the grocery store tomato bin.
Squeeze and squeeze and hope against hope that somewhere in all of those tomatoes ios going to be one that’s soft and, maybe, tasty.
Only, she was wasting her time. and ruining our tomatoes Maybe that store bought tomato can turn soft, but it can never ever turn tasty.
Tomatoes picked green haven’t yet taken on enough water to ever turn tasty.
You can squeeze them to your hearts content and the only thing you are going to find out is whether or not the tomato has turned soft.
That, though, isn’t the issue, with vine ripened tomatoes. With vine ripened, if they are red, they are, of course, soft. They are full of juice. And if you squeeze it what you are doing is ruining it.
Its as simple as that.
If you squeeze a vine ripened tomato you damage it. Unlike what you run in to in a grocery store vegetables picked fresh, particularly tomatoes but in fact most vegetables, are delicate objects. The more they are touched, the more they are damaged.
So That’s why I get so upset with people riffling through the tomato bins, (tomatillo, ground cherry, peach, plum and another dozen vegetables) Each time a piece of ripened fruit is touched it is harmed. its damaged. Its diminished.
So, the simple solution is touch vegetables as little as possible.
If you need to squeeze something, squeeze a rock, or a tomato that was picked green (one of those things found in grocery stores).
That’s why we have that rule. No handling the tomatoes. You aren’t going to learn anything by doing it. I wouldn’t have picked the tomato and offered it in the share if it wasn’t ripe, or close to it If you handle it, you damage it. No one wants to eat damaged vegetables).
So our CSA rule is simple. Look, don’t touch.
If you pick it up, its yours.
If after picking it up you find that its damaged, put it in the squished box. If its not that squished, in fact if its still edible, or part of it is. keep it. Eat the good part, just don’t count it against the number of tomatoes in your share.
The rule is simple, even if it does go against the grocery store way of thinking.
The same rule applies to all fresh, delicate fruit. And even some that aren’t so delicate. treating vegetables like they are rocks or baseballs. pens, paperclips, ping pong balls, damages them. Makes them so no one else wants to eat them either.
Which brings us, of course, back around to our favorite lawyer of example and the year of scarcity.
What happened is I started personally distributing the tomatoes. Instead of letting people pick through the boxes I would hand out the tomatoes.
Less handling meant less damage. Less damage meant more tomatoes for everyone (except the pigs).
And the pigs? Well, when I got back to the farm I’d reach into the back of the truck, and instead of several hundred squished tomatoes there would be half a dozen.
Hardly enough to pour into the trough.
So what I’d do is wait for both pigs to get up to the fence and I’d throw out one tomato to the really piggish pig and then one to the less of a pig, pig.
Then, before the pig, pig could swallow hers and run over and take the one the other was eating, I’d throw her another tomato. In the end, pretty much dividing equally the limited supply of tomatoes.
And as I think about it it seems there’s a moral hidden in there somewhere, or at least a saying, an epigram maybe?
Maybe a slogan that could have gone on one of those world war two posters.
What do you think?