When you go to the supermarket and gaze out over the pasture it is, on the surface, beautiful. Bright red, perfectly round tomatoes and bushels of corn in tight rows in their bright green husks sit on the shelves.
These are the standards. Who would want to eat a ribbed tomato or one shaped like a pear? (Especially if it were green, yellow or black.) I had an interesting discussion with David that resonated heavily with me. Commercial agriculture has mastered the art of satisfaction. Through enormous marketing divisions and years of research they know what “we”, the consumer, want. Let’s talk about the “tomato”. Rock hard, brilliantly red, smooth and spherical. Even the challenge of year round availability has been overcome. Varieties have been crossbred for certain characteristics – texture, color, and anatomy – to make transportation, appearance and harvesting easier. Crossbreeding only solves a few of these issues though, it fails to address the issue of growing seasons. But fret not, commercial agriculture has cracked nature’s code. One of the primary reasons the tomatoes from conventional markets are as hard as the packed soil they’re grown in is because of a clever trick: sometimes on the vine, others “freshly” picked, the “tomatoes” are force ripened by blasting the fruit with copious amounts of ethylene gas. This is a byproduct gas that fruits and vegetables produce once picked; it is the reason fruits ripen quicker when placed in a paper bag. But this forced process is far more removed than the one that takes place on your kitchen counter. The fruit, still unripe, go through the desired colored change but the flesh, bred additionally tough for transit, isn’t at its peak and stays locked in a state of un-ripeness. Enjoying that “tomato” in January? That’s how it’s made; that’s how the cycle starts. Conventional supermarkets – Walmart and company – have a bountiful produce section placed conveniently at the front of the store. As you walk in these bright red rocks – “tomatoes, strawberries, peaches” – placed among the palette of other colored smaller rocks catch your eye. It doesn’t even take a purchase, the brain begins to recognized this monstrosity as a “tomato” or “plum”. Come back in the winter and there is the “tomato”, gleefully shining its red brilliance, still looking identical to its earlier counterpart. But supermarkets aren’t solely to blame; restaurants do it too. How many times have you ordered a hamburger out of summer, or in it for that matter, served with the classic, lettuce, “tomato” and onion? That “tomato”, and iceberg lettuce for that matter, are the same thing, tasteless, failed imitations of a beautiful, natural product. But by proliferating this idea of a standard – tomatoes that look a certain way and available year-round – consumers begin to develop expectations; these push out the other possibilities.
Another example of this concept is with corn. The genetic diversity of the available corn in the markets is practically nonexistent for the same reason as tomatoes; a different set of characteristics dictate this but the results of such reinforce standards and expectations creating and perpetuating the cycle. The corn in stores is a hybrid version of other species bred to be incredibly sweet – and that’s it. Commercial agriculture has taken something that used to sustain ancient civilizations and turned it into a cob of sugar with little to no nutritional value. But who would enjoy the taste of a less sweet red corn? Who cares that there are other species that provide far more nutrition? So the cycle continues; uber-sweet corn breeds the next generation of corn eaters with contorted expectations of what corn should taste like; “tomatoes” are expected year round even if it means they taste like shit. The expectations are set, the standards are reinforced and the expectations continue.
But we deserve better food than that. Hundreds of species of these common fruits and vegetables occupy our planet. Some cultivated, others preserved and some rampaging wild through fields and forests. Each unique species provinding some unique trait or characteristic; exciting textures, ethereal flavors, numerous health benefits, longevity of storage and the list goes on and on. Maybe I hold as bias, but after tasting a real tomato it is impossible to go back. It is our job, to tear down these standards and begin to promote real food; to recognize that seasonality, bioregionality and biodiversity are far more important to genuinely good products, that benefit not only the consumers but the planet that these consumers occupy. It’s is a challenge. The proliferation of the “tomato” can be blamed equally between commercial agriculture and the consumers that enjoy – if that can even be said – them. Expectation of certain standards will continue these cycles. Avoiding these products, tempting as they might be are crucial. We – maybe not you directly, but our culture, desires and people – are the center of this; we were the start, and we can be the end.
One of my goals is a “devotion to creating a healthy, knowledgeable, compassionate and sustainable future by teaching the [people] about food…and conscious consumption.” I strive to create content that helps challenge the food paradigms. And by reading these posts and joining the Pans and Perspective community you are too! My hope is that next time you go to the store, restaurant, maybe even a friends home, and you see a “tomato” that you share these concepts. The future of good, real food is within our grasp.