You like tomatoes, right? Of course you do. It's been a long time since people thought tomatoes were rank and poisonous fruits of evil. (Though tomatoes are in the nightshade family -- the goths of the gardening world.) Odds are, though, that you haven't had any true tomato goodness unless you grew some yourself. Why? The answer is about 20 percent science and 80 percent racism.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American uses nearly 90 pounds of tomatoes a year, and I have to stop here for a second. How the hell does the USDA track what everyone in the U.S. eats? Are there chips implanted in our chips, or food spies monitoring the Mickey Dees? No, that's crazy talk. The USDA tracks food disappearance -- how much food leaves the system. As far as they're concerned, you could be flushing those tomatoes down the toilet when you bring them home from the supermarket, eliminating the middleman.
Now, these tomatoes nearly all suck. The USDA splits them up into two categories: market tomatoes (the pallid, tasteless ones you get at the supermarket) and processing tomatoes (tomatoes used for things like ketchup and pizza sauce and that mysterious can in the cupboard that was there when you moved into the apartment). Almost every market tomato is handpicked, while almost every tomato used in processing is picked by machine. There's no possible way a machine could be racist, right?
Wrong. See, those tomatoes are picked by machines by design. This goes back the 1940s. Then, as now, most of the tomatoes that went into cans or ketchup or tomato juice were grown in California. It was the same time in California when Japanese-Americans were sent off to internment camps and Mexican-Americans were beaten for inventing steampunk 50 years too early. With every able-bodied American man headed off to war, jail, or a detention camp, however, the United States devised a program with its neighbor to the south to import temps to fill the crap farm job gap. These braceros did the tomato picking for wartime America's insatiable ketchup habit.
No one really liked this solution, in large part because Californians of the time feared that the Golden State would become exactly what it is in 2017. Enter Gordie C. "Jack" Hanna -- not the zookeeper from those old television shows, but a plant breeder at UC Davis. In 1942, Hanna had a dream: a world that no longer needed anyone toiling in the tomato fields, but which instead used machines to pick out those blood-red jewels from the bushes.
Hanna's insight, and it was one that you really had to be a plant breeder to come up with, was to see the harvest from the tomato's point of view. Imagine that you're a tomato, and that you wanted to be picked by a terrifying metal monster without being turned to tomato paste prematurely. Hanna had a simple test for his tomatoes: He would throw them onto the road by the experimental farm at UC Davis, and breed the ones that survived.
It took nearly 20 years between breeding road-resistant tomatoes and building the machines that would pick them before Hanna and his engineer colleague, Coby Lorenzen, got it right with the VF-145 tomato (called the "square tomato" because it wouldn't roll) and the Blackwelder mechanical tomato harvester. We have someone's 16mm movies of the first ones in operation, and they are legitimately awesome.
But this invention didn't take place in a vacuum. Hanna and Lorenzen were working against time. National opinion had turned against the dreaded Mexican, leading to things like the Eisenhower administration's subtly named Operation Wetback. The bracero program was going to be phased out, leaving California's processed tomato industry with no one exploit. Kick out the Mexicans, and what happens to the ketchup? The square tomato and the mechanical tomato harvester saved the processed tomato industry. In five years, over 95 percent of processing tomatoes in California were picked by machine.
There was one problem, though: The square tomatoes sucked. Hanna defended his creation in 1977: "The flavor is not bad at all. But even if it were nonexistent, I think that a poor tomato is better than no tomato at all." Which, at a certain level, is impossible to argue with.
What about the tomatoes you see in the supermarket? Experience has likely taught you that they too suck. You have your fancy greenhouse tomatoes, which the Germans, who know better, call wasserbomben ("water balloons"). The reason here is simple: Growhouse technology has skipped tomatoes for more lucrative crops. Most supermarket tomatoes, however, are still picked in the field, green and hard. Then they're ripened in warehouses with a plant hormone which is also a component of natural gas, ethylene. (This was discovered by a Russian grad student trying to grow peas in a room with a gas leak.) While it's theoretically possible to get a decent tomato out of this process, the end result is usually as though Dr. Moreau had a sideline as a botanist.
These hard tomatoes are all picked by hand, which is where even more racism comes is. Tomato picking is a crap job, and like all crap jobs, there's a constant downward pressure to squeeze out the maximum work for minimal pay. Picking a tomato when it's hard and green is much more cost-effective than waiting for a tomato to reach soft, juicy ripeness on its own. It's mainly poor immigrant labor that does this work, and before, it was poor black farm workers. You know where this is going: slavery. You don't expect to read about the slave trade in Gourmet ever, let alone in a year with a goddamn two in front of it, but Florida, always the trendsetter, managed to make that happen.
Yes, slaves may have picked your crappy supermarket tomatoes. Southern Florida produces most of the market tomatoes in the U.S. east of the Mississippi. Since 1997, over a thousand workers had been held there in conditions of involuntary servitude in cases investigated by the Feds, which a little thought will tell you has to be a lowball of the real total. Between its 1860s-era working conditions and its sandbox terror, Florida managed to produce a tomato that was both morally and physically wretched.
Is there a bright side? Groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have kept up the antislavery movement in America's Wang, but that downward pressure has a logic of its own. If your tomatoes still suck, then sooner or later, someone will have the bright idea to skip cutting corners on the product and use slaves to pick perfectly ripe and sumptuous tomatoes -- oh wait, someone already tried that with Mexican tomato pickers in Jalisco state. Always low prices!
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