the final exciting episode in the ongoing series, I married a tomato!

In perhaps my favorite Wodehouse novel, Heavy Weather, there is a scene in which the unscrupulous and ultimately unlucky detective, Pilbeam, is manipulating Lord Emsworth, (who is, as always, ridden by the nightmare vision of his pig, the Empress, being poisoned). Pilbeam is maneuvering to get Monty Bodkin, Lord Emsworth’s secretary, fired – for reasons too complex to go into here. Of course, in lieu of conversing, Lord Em is pottering about verbally, tossing out of of those stream of association sequences, as is his wont. This provokes one of those wonderful, casual paragraphs from the master that crushes the heart of any true writer – for how can you top this?

“Pilbeam had not had the pleasure of the nineth Earl’s acquaintance long, but he had had it long enough to know that, unless firmly braked, he was capable of trickling along like this indefinitely.”

And so it is, too, with LI. We’ve been trickling along about the tomatoes, now, for a couple of posts, what? And perhaps it is time we got down to brass tacks.

So, to sum up what we have learned so far: we have an industry that is not centered on California, and that is heavily reliant on manual labor, in the 1940s. Then we have the agricultural department at the University of California putting their heads together and coming up with a solution to the farmer’s labor problem: a mechanical tomato harvester. The machine is perfect, except for the squiffy nature of the tomato itself. So, into the laboratory we go, and out we come with a more content filled tomato, designed specifically for the machine that harvests it. This results in, one, a concentration in the tomato farming field, as “by virtue of their very size and cost of more than $50,000 each, the machines are compatible only with a highly concentrated form of tomato growing.” We have a reorganization of the labor force – it is thinned out, its functions are re-distributed, the unions that represent it are slashed, and it is less costly. And we have – although this fact isn’t in Winner’s essay, but comes from the invaluable Pritchard and Burch – a shift in the center of the tomato industry to California. And of course, remember that the majority of tomatoes are being processed for pastes and ketchup – ah, the golden age of ketchup, that Cold War fixture. As Lee Reich points out in Gourmet Vegetables, the deal with tomatoes is that ‘determinate varieties’ have been designed to resist all the many perils that nature strews in the path of the tomato, but at the cost of becoming, at best, insipid.

Reich is especially keen to extirpate the myth that garden grown tomatoes of themselves are tasty little fruits, because the seeds that are usually bought to grow them are (cue the music from Jaws) of the determinate variety. Which is no surprise, as the seventies experienced a burst of gourmandise in the seed industry, with big agri-businesses eating little seed companies. With Heinz owning something like 90 percent of the tomato seed stockpile, we are, it seems, condemned to ketchup. Ketchup, ketchup everywhere.

Okay, LI is trickling on once again. What is the point of this? Oh, yes. The point is that one made so often and so loudly by the ideologues of the free market. It is that the freemarket extends preferences, and thus, those people who enjoy free markets are freer themselves. Little determinate varieties of liberty, those people.

And yet, it is easy to see that something is wrong with this picture of preferences. The idea seems to be that you are given preferences, just as you are given a menu. But back in the back room, back in the kitchen, who is cooking up the varieties of preferences? And as they cook it up, redesign the tomato, buy the seed stocks, and in general make life better for all of us ketchup swillers, isn’t there a silent moment when the flavor of the tomato exits, stage right? And without any tomato gourmands having a sayso in the matter. Indeed, is the taste of the tomato a public good, or a private one? These, as you can see, are the questions that arise from all this tomato throwing.

To which, at some point, we will return to weary the poor Pilbeams out there.


Amie said…
LI, i do hope this is not the final post on the subject of menus. i've really liked this sequence.