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This summer, I will buy tomatoes

Tomatoes are OK with meAs one might expect by taking a look at this blog’s header graphic, I’ve been getting quite a bit of email about the tomato recall. I have been reading the stories, the analyses on various listserves and blogs, and the lists of precautionary measures.

I’m going to be honest with you. Banning spinach is one thing entirely. But tomatoes? Them’s fighting words.

The reality is this: the tomatoes that have been banned are the ones that, to be quite blunt about it, suck. Not that the ones on the “OK” list are all that great. I have bitten into more nasty-foul grape tomatoes from the grocery store than I care to count, and finally stopped buying them because I was so tired of the pop-bite-spit-into-trash-can routine I’d mastered in my office at lunchtime. There are amazing tomatoes and there are bad tomatoes, and life is too short for bad tomatoes.

But what I fear is the backlash against the good stuff. What’s going to happen this summer, when tomato season in the U.S. peaks, and people go to their local farmer’s markets and turn up their nose at the selection of Brandywines and Juliets? Because, to be honest, while I feel terrible for the 167 people (and probably more who have yet gone unrecognized) who have suffered from salmonella because they ate a bad tomato, I’d bet good money on the fact that they ate a bland, pale-red slice not worthy of the name TOMATO.

This is the worst unkindness of all, really. I’m a risky eater. I will eat street food in places that no one would recommend the eating of street food. I have most certainly eaten meat that was probably not in the pork-beef-chicken-lamb continuum, but it was highly spiced, so I couldn’t tell the difference anyway. I used to brush my teeth with the tap water in Nigeria (and yes, I realize I put myself at great health risk, but I was 11 and petulant and trust me, my father punished me well enough on the day he figured out I had been doing that, so there’s no need to yell at me now).

I have also suffered from food poisoning so bad I thought I would die. (It had nothing to do with Nigerian water. In fact, the only place I’ve gotten food poisoning? The U.S. of A.) Like I said before, I don’t wish that on anyone.

But it seems to me that by banning salsa at Baja Fresh, all anyone’s doing is raising the panic level. Instead, why don’t we take a look at the root causes of why salmonella, which used to be in the purview of chickens and eggs, has now crossed the road to crawl into the body of a tomato? Whether the problem is spinach, or tomatoes, or Jack in the Box burgers, maybe the problem here is not a particular ingredient or food item, but a sign of a larger, more fundamental weakness in our food system.

As for me, I’m going to continue eating tomatoes the way I have for at least the past few years: purchased from regional farmers (since I’m not currently harboring any plants of my own). Local, preferably heirloom, tomatoes. As far as I’m concerned, the pleasure of that first, ripe, summer tomato will far outweigh the miniscule risk that it might make me sick.

12 Comments on “This summer, I will buy tomatoes”

  1. #1 Libby
    on Jun 11th, 2008 at 7:52 am

    I’m right there with ya. I will eat lots of tomatoes this summer either from the farmer’s market or from my garden (if I’m not completely washed out).

    I saw a news story about the tomato “crisis” last night, and it kind of made me sick. Not the bacteria thing (though that is awful), but the images of green tomatoes stacked to the ceiling in warehouses. Just think about the length of time between harvest and grocery store appearance and eventual purchase.

    I have reaffirmed my pledge to buy all produce at the Farmer’s Market or Co-op to do what I can.

  2. #2 inadvertentgardener
    on Jun 11th, 2008 at 8:31 am

    Libby, I’m keeping my fingers crossed your garden doesn’t wash out…so sad! And yeah, that image of green tomatoes? THAT would be why they taste so awful when you get them home from the store. Yuck.

  3. #3 Kalyn
    on Jun 11th, 2008 at 11:32 am

    I was relieved to see that the on-the-vine tomatoes were not a culprit, since those are about the only ones I ever buy (from Costco, and they aren’t bad at all.)

  4. #4 Katie
    on Jun 11th, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Damn straight – good for you! I refuse to eat tomatoes from anywhere but my garden or locally grown at the farmer’s market. Anything else just isn’t…a tomato (unless it’s in salsa).

  5. #5 inadvertentgardener
    on Jun 11th, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Kalyn, I know — I was thinking of you with all this and that you’re such a big fan of those. I definitely buy those when I need tomatoes in winter and have no other option, but I still try to just stay out of the tomato business if the season isn’t happening.

    Katie, it’s too bad more people can’t hold the line on that — I think the world would be a happier place! :-)

  6. #6 Food
    on Jun 12th, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    I just ate a tomato today!

  7. #7 inadvertentgardener
    on Jun 13th, 2008 at 6:29 am

    Food, well (Insert doom and gloom drums here) I HOPE YOU ARE STILL ALIVE!!! :-)

  8. #8 nezza
    on Jun 14th, 2008 at 1:15 am

    Salmonella in tomatoes?! Wow… I’d not heard of that over here. How on earth…? I don’t understand that one.

    I spotted my first tomato in my greenhouse yesterday. It’s currently the size of a pea so I’m not going to get too excited just yet.

  9. #9 inadvertentgardener
    on Jun 14th, 2008 at 11:36 am

    Nezza, apparently the cell structure can draw the bacteria up into the plant through the stem scar. Bizarre, huh?

  10. #10 katie
    on Jun 15th, 2008 at 2:07 am

    They’re banning tomatoes?????
    Can they do that?????
    OMG. Life as we know it coming to a screeching halt!
    I can’t have my garden this year – moving and all, but I dug 5 holes in the lawn by my kitchen and stuck in tomato plants. I mean, there are just some things a girl can’t live without.
    I hope you find some nice reliable farmers…

  11. #11 inadvertentgardener
    on Jun 19th, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Katie, I’m proud of you (and a bit jealous) for making the tomato plant situation happen for yourself — even with all the move upheaval!

  12. #12 Grape tomatoes redeem themselves « The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Aug 1st, 2008 at 6:04 am

    [...] I ever mentioned on this blog how much I hate grape tomatoes? I have, for years, hated them with a passion after eating, once too often, the Bad Grape Tomato. [...]

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