[published: July 01, 2009]
Heirloom tomatoes are just one of the ways that Americans have recently begun to declare their gastro-independence from the industrialized food state.
Not so long ago, small-scale slaughterhouses, gristmills and family farms dotted the landscapes of our country. Most of us have grandparents or great grandparents who produced a substantial portion of their own food, and knew intimately those who produced the rest of it. The knowledge of how to can peaches and bake bread was passed down generation to generation and a farm meant a few acres of diversified vegetables, a field of corn, a cow, a few pigs and a flock of chickens.
Over the past 50-100 years, however, agriculture itself has changed dramatically. Today a single farmer in the Midwest is often responsible for thousands of acres of wheat, corn or soybeans – commodity crops that make their way into virtually all of the processed foods that we purchase and consume. Vegetable farms are increasingly becoming monoculture operations, and a small handful of corporations largely control the food supply, from the genetic modification and patenting of seeds to marketing campaigns that would have us believe that we need fresh tomatoes in February, corn-fed beef and vitamin-fortified cereals. The shifts are drastic, but they have occurred with such finesse and ingenuity that we as a nation hardly noticed.
As we approach July 4th and prepare to celebrate our independence as a nation with backyard barbecues, stacks of hamburgers and hot dogs and bags of potato chips, it’s worth taking a moment of pause to think about our food system, what we put in our bellies, where it comes from, and why.
It’s also a time to look toward the future – to seek solutions, and to make changes in our own lives that reflect the independent spirit and ingenuity that are at the core of the American ideal. There are innumerable examples of such spirit, and the ranks of those who are becoming informed and stepping out, are growing each day. Outside of the industrial agriculture machine are the small farmers, the seed savers, the rooftop and& backyard gardeners, the community garden members, and the farmers’ market shoppers. Slowly and intentionally we are beginning to take back our food system and reclaim our gastro-independence.
Perhaps the most hopeful example of gastro-independence is the story of the heirloom tomato. A few generations ago, “heirloom” tomatoes (they were just tomatoes, then) were the only game in town. Every farmer or gardener had a few favorite varieties that grew well and tasted great sliced up and sprinkled with salt. They quietly cultivated Brandywines, Yellow Mortgage Lifters and Pruden’s Purples, year after year, saving the seeds and preserving biodiversity. These growers savored the rich and varied flavors of the tomatoes they grew each summer and canned jars of whole tomatoes, sauce and puree to savor over the winter.
Then came the dark years – in which supermarkets and big box stores popped up in every town, and crates of perfectly round, perfectly red, and perfectly tasteless tomatoes flooded the marketplace. These “perfect” tomatoes were engineered to look pretty and to transport well. They were grown in hot houses and flown in from far-off places —year round. It became possible to purchase a fresh tomato every day of the year, and consumers loved it.
And yet, in the background, small farmers and home gardeners continued to grow the old standby varieties, and to bring them to market in season, hoping that consumers would be seduced by names like Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Black Krim or Nebraska Wedding and won over by their taste.
It took time, and hard work, and there were setbacks and frustrations, but today, the term “heirloom tomato” is very much in the mainstream. For many Americans, this most simple of foods has served as the introduction to a whole new world of taste and knowledge and connection to the source of our food. Sometime in the past 15 years, heirloom tomatoes became the poster children for the slow, local, organic, sustainable food movement. It’s easy to see why – literally hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes are cultivated in the United States. They can be big or small, smooth or fuzzy, round or oblong or bumpy all over. Their colors range from light yellow to bright orange, green striped to deep purple and mottled red. When you slice them open, a whole new vibrant color palate is exposed. As for the flavor, let’s just say that it’s worth shunning fresh tomatoes for ten months out of the year just to have that first bite of a Brandywine in late July or early August.
In my mind, both heirloom tomatoes and the farmers and gardeners who grow them exemplify independence. Both are living a sometimes-hardscrabble existence, continually waging a battle against the corporate powers that be. Both stand for self-sufficiency, integrity and tradition in a food world that trends towards the fast, the cheap and the easy. It’s not a quick battle, but it’s one worth fighting.
I will celebrate the Fourth of July by shopping at a farmers’ market and perhaps putting in some labor hours on a local farm. I’ll be celebrating my ability to choose what I want to eat and to grow my own food on my little patch of land. I’ll also be celebrating the true independent spirits in this movement who are doing their part to keep us all in good food, be it planting 60 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, teaching consumers how to preserve the harvest, refurbishing an old gristmill to grind wheat and corn or selling artisanal cheeses for local farmers.
There won’t be any heirloom tomatoes at the farmstands this weekend, but I’m patient. I know they’re coming, and I know they’ll be delicious. And there is plenty to savor in the meantime.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
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