The taken-for-granted summer tomato

As I savored a giant slice of peppered and salted beefsteak tomato the other night — my raw tomato-loathing husband looking at me only slightly disgusted, that’s how good it looked — I found the taste taking me back to summers at my grandmother’s. The entire space of lawn that wrapped around the back of her garage had been turned into a tomato menagerie, with towers of vines wrapping above my little girl head. I loved picking and popping cherry tomatoes right off the vine, taking the bigger toms inside to sprinkle with salt and pepper before gorging myself some more. My sister is not a raw tomato fan either, so I didn’t even have to share.


My weak attempt at growing last-minute tomatoes.

My neighbor’s garden has an impressive showing of tomatoey spheres turning from green to yellow already. And, if my dog doesn’t jump over the fence and eat them all, they might even share (got a generous bag of kale and cukes from them this week).


I stand in awe of the green thumbs next door.

Tomatoes are synonymous with mid-summer, and they’ve been the star of my favorite food reads of late. The Washington Post’s food page heralded the beginning of its Top Tomato 2012 contest this week. (They said soups and pasta sauces are overdone, so they better be good). And the latest Real Simple featured 20 Recipes for Fresh Summer Tomatoes. My favorite recipe is still this: add salt, then pepper. Although it got a run for its money this week when I tried a couple over-easy eggs atop my giant slices of tomato. Pretty delish.

Evidence that my fence-jumping dog has sampled the early variety of tomatoes.

We — especially you overzealous gardeners out there — seem to have an overabundance of tomato goodness this time of year, so much so we have to conjure up 20-some recipes to put them to use. It’s easy to forget those winder doldrums when the garden and farmers market tomatoes fade out of season and are replaced by wannabe tomatoes — the hothouse variety that, if compared in a side-by-side taste test with true summer tomatoes, would probably be disqualified.

One DC-based nonprofit with an international mission launched a campaign this summer against those tomato impersonators — or at least some of them. The International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that campaigns against slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of oppression, recently launched a campaign against tomatoes that are harvested essentially by slaves in the Sunshine State of Florida — yep, in America. What constitutes modern-day slavery? According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, workers in these tomato fields are held captive against their will by the employers, who often threaten them with and use violence to keep the workers in tow. IJM says more than 1,000 of these workers have been freed from slavery in Florida’s tomato fields over the past 15 years thanks to ongoing efforts.

IJM’s campaign asks that people urge their supermarkets and grocery stores to stock slave-free tomatoes. Publix, Ahold (owners of Stop & Shop, Giant and Martin’s) and Kroger are on the list of chains that are being urged to endorse what’s called the Fair Food Program. Companies who’ve already joined the campaign include “McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and Yum Brands, as well as foodservice providers Aramark, Sodexo, Compass Group and Bon Appetit Management Company, in addition to supermarket chains Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.” As of June, TJ’s and Whole Foods were the only two supermarket chains on the list. Why?

  • “Corporations that join the Fair Food Program agree to pay a small price increase for fairly harvested tomatoes (1.5 cents more per pound), and promise to shift purchases to the Florida tomato growers who abide by these higher standards – and away from those who won’t.”

It may be a tall order, but the effort has seen quite a bit of progress. An article last summer by NY Times’ Mark Bittman, “The true cost of tomatoes,” goes a bit deeper. And there’s still the rest of tomato-rich summer for supporters to make an impression with the other grocery chains.

Until then, enjoy the tomatoes sprouting aplenty in your own backyard or at your neighborhood market. Get your fill of them now and forgo them for the winter, as our ancestors did. Or, plan on making a go of it with those (however subpar) winter tomatoes, and consider joining the effort to at least get them grown and harvested in a humane manner here.

2 Responses to “The taken-for-granted summer tomato”
  1. Whitney – Thank you for such an eloquent and immersive look into your local and our country’s tomatoes! And thank you for spreading the word about Recipe for Change – we’ve been really excited to put it together and see the movement spread. Thank you for sharing – and we hope to stay in touch!

  2. A thoughtful post on such an important topic. I’m supporting IJM this summer too — cheers from one advocate to another!

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