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Barry Estabrook

Tomatoland author on slavery, flavorless tomatoes and food porn

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Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland has plenty to chew on. In fact, the James Beard Award-winning author's book reads more like a detective story than a simple deconstruction of the world's most alluring fruit. Chronicling an industry that shoves out gorgeous but tasteless tomatoes, Estabrook also revealed an almost unbelievable culture of indentured servitude that continued until very recently.

Estabrook, who visited Boise State University on Oct. 1, spoke with Boise Weekly about his best-selling expose and why he calls some tomatoes "food porn."

Was the sensation of tasting homegrown tomatoes a part of your formative years?

Strangely enough, growing tomatoes was one of the few places where I bonded with my father. I remember the smell and feel of the roots and sitting down with him having sliced tomatoes. That's probably why I'm a tomato nerd.

Did Tomatoland begin as a magazine piece?

I was a staff writer for Gourmet magazine for a long time. I went down to Florida to do a story about a guy who was growing a different type of tomato. What took me there was a gastronomic story ... I discovered stories of people being prosecuted for slavery. It was horrifying.

Tell me about how human trafficking was linked to the tomato industry.

Between the 1990s and 2007, 1,500 people were freed from slavery in Florida tomato fields.

Most people would be shocked by this.

I'm not talking about euphemisms here. These were people who were bought and sold for $350-$500.

Were these people undocumented workers?

All sorts of people: Some were American-born, some documented as guest workers, some undocumented. The one thing they all had in common was that they were as desperate and broke as a human can be.

What were they paid?

Maybe $20 a week. A driver would pull to up a homeless mission, pick up some men for work and drive them out to the bush. But the tomatoes wouldn't be ready to pick. So the bunkhouses would cost the men some money and they would have to pay for meals.

Where did this happen?

Immokalee, Fla. [Tomatoland dubs Immokalee "the tomato capital of the United States"].

Have I eaten a tomato from Immokalee at some point in my life?

A U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida looked me straight in the eye and said, "It's not an assumption. If you've eaten tomatoes in supermarkets, restaurants or institutional food service companies, you have eaten something from the hands of slaves." I finished researching my book at the end of 2010. That was a watershed year. That's when a coalition of Immokalee workers and tomato growers reached an agreement which provided a 50-percent wage increase and also some basic freedoms: no slaves, no sexual harassment. If I wrote Tomatoland today, it would be a very different book. Thankfully, things have improved.

How does a 21st century tomato compare to, let's say, a tomato we ate in the 1960s?

Today's tomato has dramatically less calcium, Vitamin A and Vitamin C, but about 14 times more sodium.

What gives us any indication that this might change anytime soon?

Labor relations are improving. But we need more supermarkets on board with reform. Today, you walk into a supermarket in the dead of winter and there are a dozen different tomato choices.

And a fair amount of them are tasteless.

A tomato farmer told me, "I don't get paid a penny for flavor. I get paid by the pound." Many Florida tomatoes are picked green and artificially gassed with ethylene to prematurely turn them red. A winter tomato is a kind of food porn.

I don't think I would ever consider tomatoes as food porn.

It looks like a tomato, but it doesn't taste like a tomato. You realize you're not getting what you think you're getting. Think of that beautiful, shiny-looking tomato. You know, it promises to deliver you a summer delight in the winter, but it doesn't.