Friday, May 7, 2010

A Tribute to Real Tomatoes and Mom's Bloody Mary Mix

When May rolls around, I think of gardening.  Actually, I think about how long I will have to wait for the first ripe tomato.

When I was very young, I asked my mother, a Methodist, what Methodists believed in.  Dad was a Baptist, and he wanted me to be one of them, so it followed naturally that I inquire about Methodists.  She told me that Methodists (at one time) believed that tomatoes were poisonous.

This revelation about poisonous tomatoes bewildered me and put me squarely in the Baptist camp during my formative years.  I will say this much, that in salving my curiosity about tomatoes, and Methodists, I learned later in life that the tomato is a member of the nightshade family, and further, that eating the vines and leaves of the tomato plant will make you nauseous.  So I defend my Methodist ancestors and their fear of tomatoes accordingly.

Our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Smallwood, raised tomato plants in their backyard garden each summer.  The practice was fairly common in my neighborhood.  When the tomatoes ripened, Mr. Smallwood, a grandfatherly type if there ever was one, would hail and invite me over for a tomato sandwich. 

That’s all it was--a thick tomato slice on white bread with a little salt and pepper.  One tomato sandwich always led to a second; they were heavenly.  And I think it had to do with the anticipation of green tomatoes turning red.  Of course, picking the tomato off the vine and slicing it right then also piqued my taste buds.

I wonder how many Americans have never tasted a vine-ripened tomato from the backyard garden.  And worse, I wonder how many Americans believe that the reddish thing sold by the supermarket as a tomato is a real tomato.

Supermarkets puzzle me. 

I have raised and butchered my own beef.  However, the beef sold in stores looks nothing like fresh, farm-raised beef.  I have to believe that three-out-of-four Americans have never tasted the real product. 

When I shop for chicken, I usually see a red tint to the water in the package.  The only red parts of a chicken are its blood and feathers.  Pardon the pun, but there is something afoul with the corpus delecti.

It’s the age of manufactured food, an age made necessary because Americans are extremely price-sensitive when it comes to buying food.  The soccer mom who routinely drops $100.00 on a pair of Nikes bristles when she sees the price of head lettuce.  She’ll sometimes go without lettuce but never even wince at the Nikes sticker.

The University of California at Davis ushered in the manufactured food age when it developed the modern tomato.  The school crossbred a tomato that was uniform in size and resisted bruising.  The Davis-bred tomatoes could be picked green, handled roughly, and ripened with ethylene gas while in transit from farm to market.

The fact that Davis-bred tomatoes never tasted like tomatoes made no difference.  And why should it?  Everything else in California is make-believe.

The uniform size concept also led to the modern meat packing industry.  Whether it’s beef, pork or poultry production, the animals are bred and fed in a way to make standard-size carcasses that fit the slaughterhouse handling machinery. 

In one respect, the food industry deserves credit for its efficient mass production.  The family food budget, as a per cent of family income, is about half of what it was forty years ago.  But there are trade-offs with mass production, taste and appearance being the most obvious.

“Food, Inc.”, the 2008 agribusiness documentary, provides a good overview of how we have changed agriculture.  The documentary does mimic Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, but its bias is pretty transparent.  Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, “Botany of Desire”) is interviewed, and his commentary, along with others, is level-headed.

If you feel that some of the scenes in the film depict animal cruelty, then I would hope that you don’t.  The only reason these animals ever lived was to become food on someone’s plate.  Or, as farmers have long said: “What’s time to a hog?” 

Going back to the tomatoes of my youth, I am glad that my mother never feared them.  She perfected a Bloody Mary mix that cannot be topped.  She would can a hundred quarts of the beverage each summer, and when football season came, she was the hit of the tailgate parties. 
In the end, Mom won me over to the Methodist camp with her Bloody Mary mix.  The Baptists were never going to top that.