Over the past few years, a slew of food books have appeared on everything from oysters to oranges, Twinkies to beans. Heck, I’m even writing one about grains and bread, which explains my relative absence here recently. But in Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook takes what might appear to be a narrow subject — tomatoes, grown in Florida — and spins it into a much bigger and disturbing tale (or more accurately, indictment).
You might not know, for example, that these tomatoes are grown in nearly sterile sand devoid of anything resembling soil, thus requiring copious amounts of fertilizers and toxic pesticides; or that these pesticides have been doused on workers, causing pregnant farmworkers to give birth to babies without arms or legs and leading to multimillion-dollar lawsuits. Or that Immokalee, Florida, the heart of the industry, has become ground zero for contemporary cases of slavery.
It might be easy to go overboard and bludgeon this story to death with a heavy handed “J’accuse!” but thankfully Estabrook is too good a writer to fall prey to such tendencies. Instead, he lets the details speak for themselves and they prove devastating.