Friday, July 18, 2008

Italian peaches (and tomatoes)

(this is my annual tomato rant. It's sort of a mandatory read for peach and tomato eaters. But could also apply to everyone who has an uncontrollable urge to pick up a squash, a cucumber, plum, apple, eggplant or any other delicate fruit or vegetable and give it a squeeze.

A quiz will follow.

The previous rant which had got itself reprinted in cook books, magazines and blogs seemed, to me, as though it was getting a tad clunky. This one has the same themes but with some more information and a few different images. This week's farm news is at the end of the rant).

I wonder how many of our shareholders have been to Europe? Raise your hands please. (there’s a point to this, so please bear with me).

Have you been to a farmers’ market in, let’s say, France or maybe Italy?

As in, its November and you’re in Rome (work trip?). After drinking a morning expresso and eating several pastries in one of the sidewalk cafes on the Piazza Farnese (save the receipt so you can get reimbursed), you decide to cruise through the farmers’ market that takes up most of the plaza in the daytime.

In one of the produce stands there’s a basket of particularly nice looking tomatoes.

In front of the basket, beside the sign telling how many Euros the tomatoes are going to cost you, is another sign. In the case of the November tomatoes, this sign says, in Italian, of course, ‘Produce of Morocco’.

And those clams. the ones in the other stand. The stand that just does seafood. The sign says the clams come from Spain.

In Europe, and really, I can only speak for Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, there must be country of origin labeling laws.

Everywhere you look there is a label or sign telling where produce was grown.

A nice law. (I understand something like that is written into the current version of the farm bill).

Can you imagine going into your local discount grocery chain store and seeing a sign that reports which state, or for that matter even, which country the fresh food came from. Having a country of origin law for the processed stuff is probably too much to hope for.

But, while that's an interesting subject, it’s not the answer I’m looking for.

There’s something else that happens at an European farmers’ market and it has nothing to do with signs, or for that matter, the lousy exchange rate the dollar is getting these days.

The answer I'm looking for has to do with the way the customers act and why they act so much differently than Americans do when confronted with fruits and vegetables.

In Europe you don’t see the customers squeezing the tomatoes,

Or pinching the peaches,

Or ripping the corn husks to see what's inside.

In European markets customers do not touch the produce. In fact Europeans don’t even consider squeezing tomatoes or peaches is a way of finding out anything worthwhile about their produce. When they want to know how about the condition of the tomatoes they ask. 'Is this ripe?' 'When was it picked?' 'Anything I should know about this?'

So why do Americans think they must maul produce to detect if its fit to eat and Europeans don't?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and the answer is really pretty simple.

But before I give away the 'pretty simple' answer, lets look at one of the ways the two produce systems differ.

First, let's look at the American corporate food system. The system that most of us have grown up with. The one that provides all of that beautiful fruit and vegetables we see in our grocery stores.

In America we, at least the more affluent of us, live in a world where our grocery stores are full of colorfully pleasing, visually beautiful vegetables and fruits. Bright red tomatoes without a blemish. Mounds of unbelievably beautiful apples, again without even the hint of a worm hole. Startling orange peaches with absolutely no fruit fly damage.

And all of it, all of that beautiful produce, is all right on the edge of being inedible.

Cardboard tomatoes.

Baseball peaches.

Dead apples ( Have you ever eaten an apple right off the tree, and noticed that live, sparkling feeling in your mouth as though its still alive and moving)?

It's obvious something is going on to produce this paradox of gorgeously beautiful fruit and vegetables with the taste of something that is only marginally edible.

What is it?

We have a food system where the norm is for vegetables to be picked hard and green, where most of our food travels several thousand miles to get to the store.

But first, before I criticize it any more, let's concede -- commercial produce growing, harvesting and marketing in our country, is a science.

A science primarily aimed at attempting to convert a farm into a factory (in the trade a tomato isn’t called a tomato it is called a ‘product’ As in ‘I have ten boxes of product’),

And creating a ‘product’ that is not only beautiful, blemish free, colorful (in other words something that should be easy to sell on looks alone). But, and this is the kicker, one that can be stored for as long a time as possible.

In other words, this industry is constantly working to extending the shelf-life of its food products.

Fresh food products as well as processed one.

It works to create a vegetable 'product' that has shelf-life in the same way a tool 'product (hammers and nails, etc) has shelf-life.

Fruits and vegetables that will still look pretty and appealing after its been bounced and pinched and trucked, sorted, weighed and forced to sit around in boxes and shelves for weeks and weeks after being taken out of a chemical saturated field.

This is an industry that is only in passing concerned about taste.

Remember, once a product is sold it is really no longer of much concern to the industry. (Last time I walked into a grocery store I didn't see any taste warrantees in the produce section).

I mean, what do you think the idea of irradiating food is all about. Is an irradiated mango going to taste better, or is it going to have a longer shelf life?

And that’s why commercial tomatoes and peaches and many other fruits and vegetables are picked while they are stone hard.

If a tomato or peach is picked ripe they have no shelf life. They are easily damaged. They have to be treated like newborn babies.

However, this same fruit if picked earlier, while it is still baseball hard, it is going to be able to take abuse.

Instead it can be thrown into a large hopper, dumped into a 18-wheel trailer, hauled across dirt and gravel roads to a packing house where it is treated like gravel and poured off of the truck, onto a conveyor built and eventually sorted by size and dumped into a box.

A real educational trip is to go on a road trip in August out to the Eastern Shore and turn south along US 13 into the Virginia part of the Delmarva peninsula.

This is when the huge corporate tomato farms are harvesting.

In August, when you drive down US 13 you will pass tractor trailers overflowing with tomatoes.

Green tomatoes.

And not just green tomatoes. Stone hard tomatoes. Tomatoes as hard as a baseball.

These tomatoes are picked when they are mostly flesh (or bone) and very little water.

The Eastern Shore tomato (and Florida, Mexico, California, Arizona greenhouse and half a dozen other places where industrial tomatoes are ‘grown’) are picked several weeks before they begin to get a hint of color.

Just ask yourself how can a tomato travel on the bottom of a tractor trailer with literally tons of other tomatoes on top of it, how can it do that without squishing? To do that it doesn’t act anything like a field ripened vegetable.

From there these hard green tomatoes are driven to the packing house, graded, sorted, separated, boxed and shipped out across the country and world.

A couple years ago we were in Chincoteague sitting at a bar in a restaurant waiting for our table when I started talking to the two guys next to me.

Tomato salesmen.

These guys were migratory. They traveled with the tomato crop. But, instead of working out in the fields they worked in air conditioned offices surrounded by telephones and their contact rolodexes.

All day long these guys would sit with a headset making phone calls to produce buyers for grocery chains, restaurants, distributors, cafeterias, warehouses, brokers, schools, hospitals and anywhere else that dealt with the industry of feeding people.

They would be on the phone all day making sales pitches for tomatoes.

I asked them about it. "Are you selling all of those trailers full of green tomatoes I see being hauled up and down 13?"

"We're selling mostly slicers."

I asked them what their customers were most concerned about. "I mean, what is the biggest objection you have to overcome?"

And the answer?

Shelf life. "They want to know when its going to get to them and how long it will be in top shape for them."

And finally, when I asked the salesmen about taste. "does anyone ever ask about how they are going to taste?

They laughed. Really I didn't have a sense they knew what I was talking about. A slicer is a slicer. Who worries about taste? The concerns are size, shape and shelf-life. Everyone in the industry knows that we're talking about something, out of industrial necessity was picked green. Taste is what it is.

It's just a fact of life that a 'product' which is picked green and hard is never ever going to be ripe or flavorful like one grown in your backyard. And anyway, the customers don't seem to mind. They want pretty, they want blemish free, they want a low price.

So there's your grocery store model. Picked green and hard. Transported to market just in time for it to turn colors, to look beautiful and the customer squeezing the produce trying to find the one that might actually taste like something you want to eat. (but doomed not to find it because it just doesn't exist).

Now lets think about the difference between that tomato and the tomato you are going to get from me.,or that is available in those European markets and produce stands, or for that matter, the one you can grow yourself if you have a place to grow tomatoes.

First off, for us, our concern is not shelf-life. I pick my produce in the morning and give it to you in the afternoon. the morning of the pick up.

I don't pick tomatoes green and set them aside to turn red. Each day I go out and pick ripe vegetables, ones that are at their peak taste wise.

And why is the difference between the green picked tomato and mine important?

During that month, the month when the commercial tomato is picked and the time when I pick my tomatoes, a lot happens to a tomato on the vine that doesn't happen to it in a box.

This is the period when the fruit become delicate. The plant begins to put a lot of juice into the fruit. This is when the fruit acquires that flavor and texture you want in a tomato. The riper the more delicate. And, unfortunately, the longer we wait to harvest it, besides the better the taste, the more susceptible it is to damage.

So, its really that simple. Tomatoes picked green have a long shelf-life can take the harsh treatment they are going to get in our mult-state, multi-country food industry. they can be squeezed and pinched and handled and nothing is going to happen to it. It is going to continue to be just as beautiful and just as tasteless.

On the other hand, a tomato or peach or other delicate vegetable (let's really count squash and cucumbers, tomatillos and eggplant as well as most of the peppers into this category) can not take much handling.

When you squeeze it you rupture the fruits water soaked flesh. Trust me on this one. It can not take it. No matter how 'gentle' squeezing and handling causes at least some damage. The more handling, the more damage.

So here's our rule. It is the same one you'll find in that Italian market on the Piazza Farnese.

Don't touch that tomatoes and peaches until you own it.

Let's have no squeezing or pinching. No picking up a peach, holding it in your hand, testing it and then putting it back down with the others. No shuffling the delicate fruit like it was a box of golf balls and you were trying to find the one with the right color.

If you have a question about the ripeness of the vegetables, ask me

But once you touch it, its yours.

(and of course, if you pick up a beautiful looking peach only to find the bottom is damaged, keep it but don't count it against the number in your share. A peach that looks good enough to pick up is good enough to salvage as an addition to your share).

And if you need more convincing that handling vine ripened vegetables is bad behavior here's a good story from my hard learned experience.

Several years ago, when I used to deliver to offices if ten or more people signed up one of my stops was the law firm for a prominent national environmental organization.

I would pull up to the back door to their offices, put out my vegetables and the secretaries (and sometimes the attorneys themselves) would come out to pick up their vegetables.

This was before the no squeezing rule.

Back then, I discovered, I had to pick 20% more tomatoes than people were going to take.

If I needed 80 tomatoes to give to the shareholders, I needed to pick 100. Because at the end of the day I would drive back home with 20 hopelessly damaged tomatoes that would end of being fed to our pigs.

(I had pigs then, I don't now).

Each day 20% of the tomatoes that went into the city fresh ripe and undamaged would come home, squashed, bruised and leaking tomato juice.

My thoughts at the time were that it must mean that 20% of all tomatoes picked are damaged by picking them, putting them into boxes, driving them into the city and then driving them home at night.

A high number, but that seemed to be just part of doing business.

That was until the year of the environmental lawyers. Or particularly, one specific environmental lawyer.

One afternoon I pulled up to her office, put down the vegetables and watched.

I watched her pick up each tomato, give it a little squeeze and then put it back down. She was a meticulous woman.

She would pick up and squeeze ten, fifteen tomatoes for each one she took.

And when she had finished, picked up her tote back and went back up to her law office I looked at the damage she had left behind.

Two of those yellow boxes almost completely full of now damaged tomatoes. Tomatoes I couldn't give to any other shareholder. Tomatoes that looked like they were destined to be hog food.

The next week, though, I changed my practice.

I put out all the other vegetables but I kept the tomatoes on the tail gate of my pick up. People had to file by me to get their tomatoes. They pointed at the tomatoes they wanted and I would pick it up and place in their bag.

No pinching or squeezing but at the same time I didn’t give anyone damaged fruit. Or green fruit, or unripened fruit.

Only tomatoes that they approved of.

And at the end of the day I went home and the poor pigs, instead of getting 20 tomatoes, were only fed two.

Transportation damage dropped form 20% to 2% just by stopping the squeezing.

And since during the height of tomato season we're picking close to 800 tomatoes a day that is a difference of about 150 tomatoes a day. 150 good, tasty, undamaged tomatoes that our shareholders get to take home and eat rather than 150 squeeze damaged tomatoes that I take home and toss into the pig pen.

Leigh Hauter

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