Tomato Tomatoe

I’ve got a steady flow of tomatoes from the garden now, though I’ve lost a few to blossom-end rot this year, I think because it’s been so hot and relatively dry. So far I’ve made a spicy wine-and-tomato sauce with a few of the bird peppers from the garden, a tomato-and-mint soup, and several rounds of tomato-mozzarella-avocado salad (I’ve started dressing it with tomato water mixed with a touch of olive oil, lime juice and soy sauce, and this really works well). My favorite thing from the garden this year, though, was the fresh cranberry beans soaked and then fried lightly, added to some thin slices of zucchini from the garden that I dipped in chickpea flour and fried with chorizo and garlic.

Working with fresh vegetables from the garden helps me put general foodie preoccupations in perspective. This New York Times piece on expensive boutique ice cream raises the question of when it makes sense to prefer local or high-end foods and when it doesn’t. I like locavores and slow-food advocates because the consequences of their advocacy is often very good food. But the more religious versions of both turn me off. I don’t think it’s at all clear that eating local is always a net plus in environmental terms, for example. I know it’s not always a net plus in terms of taste or quality. There’s nothing better than heirloom tomatoes from your own garden, but plenty of things that I have grown over the last decade aren’t measurably better-tasting for having come from my own yard. When I find that’s the case, I stop growing them. (I also stop growing them when it turns out that the local varmints can’t keep their paws and beaks off of them.) The mainstays are tomatoes, beans and greens, all of which seem better to me grown right here.

In terms of local foods, cheese and dairy can often be superior, but that’s often because of the way the dairy is run or the skill with which the cheese is made, not because it’s local. Local meats can be better, but that’s generally the case only if there’s something different about the conditions under which it is kept or the breed quality (especially with heirloom breeds). Eggs are different: a freshly-laid egg is a thing of wonder. Local produce is better if it’s something where spoilage is a factor over longer distances or if it’s a fruit or vegetable where mass production has totally destroyed flavor in favor of standardization and shippability (tomatoes or apples). And all of this applies if you’ve got the money to pay for distinctiveness: none of these locavore preferences scales at all well to mass production. I was down at the Italian Market in Philadelphia earlier this week, and honestly, in some cases, I don’t see that the produce or meat there outdoes a good-quality supermarket, except that you can get more cuts and things like tripe from the butchers there.

All of this goes double or triple for prepared or manufactured foodstuffs. There are mainstream brands that I think are superior to up-market organics, and in some cases better than what you might make yourself. I can make corn tortillas from scratch and then cut them up and fry them, but honestly, there are a number of brands of tortilla chips that would outdo anything I can do at a cheaper price, without the labor. Good food is good food: it can come from a factory or from the little old lady next door, from a big farm or from a garden.

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11 Responses to Tomato Tomatoe

  1. cjlee says:

    In my experience living in California and North Carolina, the locavore movement is not so much about taste, but about reducing one’s carbon footprint. By making strawberries available in January, the globalization of food has escalated the pollution costs (through transport) of eating. If taste is in the foreground of discussion or advertising, it is primarily to make carbon reduction more palatable. But I think there is much to be said about locally grown food that has not been refrigerated in a container ship for weeks, or similarly frozen for months on end. On average I think it does taste better when fresh and in season.

    Also, I think a distinction is needed between locavore and slow food. They overlap, but the slow food movement is about preparing one’s own food, eating complete, nutritious meals, and not resorting to prepackaged, quickly-consumed food. In short, not all “slow food” is necessarily local.

  2. cjlee says:

    A quick footnote as well: the locavore movement is also about small businesses, local resources (grown, raised, or naturally occurring), and regional economies, i.e. against a corporate, global culture where a hamburger in Beijing tastes the same as one in Milwaukee. It’s about diversity, and supporting local people. The importance of building these connections through habits of day-to-day eating should not be overlooked.

  3. Chris Cagle says:

    To my knowledge little, if any, of the Italian Market produce is local. The 9th street stands sell wholesale produce, which is pretty much what you get in a supermarket, only cheaper.

    Pretty much everything I get at the farmer’s market tastes noticeably better than supermarket produce (including Whole Foods). Though I agree that the quality difference is more pronounced in some things than others. Tomatoes, corn, eggs, pretty much any fruit, and (surprisingly) mushrooms. But even fresh, local potatoes are a revelation.

  4. alkali says:

    ” I like locavores and slow-food advocates because the consequences of their advocacy is often very good food. But the more religious versions of both turn me off. … Good food is good food: it can come from a factory or from the little old lady next door, from a big farm or from a garden. ”

    I agree with this in general. Here come (drum roll) the qualifications:

    1) I’m not sure if there are any religious versions of locavores and slow-food advocates; if they are, they are pretty thin on the ground. Pretty much everyone I have ever met who subscribes to some form of local or slow food preference recognizes that it’s a matter of degree.

    2) One of the chief virtues of local food to my mind is, to use a fuzzy word, its “relational” quality: the ice cream is made in a storefront kitchen in my neighborhood, and the milk for the ice cream comes from a farm eight miles away and you can see the cows. This matters more for my kids than for me, although it matters to me too, and it’s not just “educational” in the sense of inculcating my kids with a set of facts about where ice cream comes from. It helps my kids understand something where they fit in the world and about how the world works. All that is separate from the nutritional content of the food and the environmental impact of its production. You could feed your kids a perfectly sound diet made of factory foods but you would lose all that.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I dunno, I’ve certainly met people who shade over into “religious” in terms of both projects. Certainly even some fairly pragmatic advocates of both that I know tend to make some strong assertions about the environmental or aesthetic superiority of their favored project that don’t necessarily rest on a strong foundation.

    I like the point about the relational quality of local food, but that can cut in some different ways. For example, knowledge isn’t always positive: I can know things about a local producer that unsettle me. That’s good if the issue is food safety, but not necessarily so good if the issue is that the guy I’m buying from is such a colossal jerk that I can’t countenance buying his stuff. That’s where the impersonal character of a lot of modern exchange is a balm to the soul, where it doesn’t matter if the factory manager or the owner or the workers are jerks because I don’t have a direct human relationship to them. Fetishism isn’t just a device by which capitalism reproduces itself: it’s a choice that some of us make because certain kinds of everyday maintenance practices become psychologically easier, maybe even for the people doing labor. I noticed the other day that a lot of people in the local supermarket were switching to self checkout even though the line was just as long–and I think it’s partly because we’d rather carry out a routinized task without having to exchange pleasantries about the weather with an unlikeable stranger.

    But also, you could argue that what we need knowledge of in relational terms is precisely the things which are most unknown and yet most present in our lives. Our kids actually grow up with farms and farming totally within their frame of reference–kids’ books are full of the names of animals, and so on. Factories, though? Kids learn nothing about what they’re like on the inside unless they have a parent that works in one. But there are more factories around me right now than there are guys raising cows, I think.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I haven’t tried growing potatoes, actually. I should give that a whirl to see what the taste difference is like. (Root crops are hard in general: my beets and carrots have been stunty little things most years.) Zucchini would be for me the classic case of something that’s easy to grow, so I grow a little just to have it on hand, but that doesn’t taste markedly different even if it goes straight from farm to table. Any squash, really.

  7. jpool says:

    Will all statements on local and organic food soon require the preamble “I’m not a Pollanist, but …”?

    It’s a rather strange change-up in this piece between I don?? think it?? at all clear that eating local is always a net plus in environmental terms, for example and I know it?? not always a net plus in terms of taste or quality. I suppose the environmental impact of local foods depend on how they are grown locally, whether they require large imputs of irrigation or fertilizer in order to grow in a particular climate. Some sensible combination of local and organic, however, would seem to be a pretty unambiguously wise environmental practice.

    The fact that you or I are going to continue to drink coffee or eat some processed foods or buy the conventional lettuce from California because we want a salad and the local organic stuff looks like crap this week doesn’t, I don’t think, need to be valorized as a triumph of taste over dogma. I think it makes more sense to frame it as, (for us privileged first-worlders) its a big complicated consumer market place out there, and while we’re going to try and make ethical choices, sometimes we’re going to go with what’s cheaper or more convenient or more pleasurable.

    As far as the pleasures of grow your own, I find that, in addition to the pleasures you mention of watching something you planted bear fruit and being able to take a little at a time of what you want to use as it pleases you, there’s also cost (farmers’ market stuff is cheap, but the stuff I grow, cheaper still, on average), and the fact that I can choose to grow varieties that either have too low of yields or are to fragile to be grown commercially. The heirloom eggplants I harvested last week will probably only produce 5-6 fruits per plant over the season, but they were amazing.

  8. back40 says:

    “Factories, though? Kids learn nothing about what they??e like on the inside unless they have a parent that works in one. ”

    And that would mean that your parent is a one armed robot? Actually, there are many inside-the-factory TV shows – How It’s Made etc. – so I wonder if the notion that kids learn nothing is even true? Dirty Jobs, etc.

    “I don?? think it?? at all clear that eating local is always a net plus in environmental terms, for example.”

    It’s hotly disputed. Those who are reasoning in good faith from semi-good evidence usually find that local isn’t an environmental plus, but there’s an emerging awareness of a sort of middle ground, the regional operation. It has many of the environmental economies of scale claimed by the globalized food industry, but with a lot less food miles dripping from each morsel of food, and a lot less embedded energy in the food production.

    The evidence in all cases is sparse and tainted by dogma, so it may be useful to keep an open mind for a while longer.

  9. thm says:

    A freshly-laid egg certainly looks like a thing of wonder; the yolk is almost orange and the contrast between the yolk color of farm-fresh eggs and industrial eggs is striking. Counter-intuititively, that does not translate into taste: Tamar Haspel, who herself raises chickens, did a blind tasting of eggs up and down the SOLE scale, and found that their taste was indistinguishable. She wrote an article that appeared in the Washington Post and perhaps elsewhere describing the experiment. She was also interviewed by Lynne Rosetto Kaspar on the subject.

  10. Nitad says:

    I have to say Tamar Haspel did not use eggs like we get from our local egg farmer in her experiment, because we have noticed a marked difference in taste, texture, color and how they cook. The beta carotene from all the vegetation that the chickens eat makes for more nutritional eggs, thicker yolk and more intense flavor. Our grass fed beef is the same with an orange tint to the meat, and a confidence that there was no e-coli in this cows stomach.

    Yes, I think that eating locally is not all about taste, or carbon foot-print, or supporting your neighbors, it is knowing something about where your food is coming from and what is in it. The US dept. of agriculture is remiss in what it reveals about our food sources. It takes quite a bit of research to get the scoop on what is in our food, and how it was produced. Maybe you don’t want to know, but what goes into your body does tend to have an effect on quality of life.

    No, I am not one of those religious types, but the more I read and eat the happier I am to know what goes into my food.

  11. christina says:

    My taste buds usually enjoy local produce over produce coming from the other side of the world. If I have a choice of tomatoes from a farm within 50km of where I live or tomatoes from another continent, then I??l pick the local farm. If my choice does less damage to the environment, that makes me smile too. But we also need to enjoy the gifts that the world offers us. In Toronto I?? never have fresh figs or fresh pineapple if I only ate local.

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